If you’re like me, you succeed at times, and you screw up here and there too. Some projects turn out wonderful. Others, not so much. It feels great when we succeed, and not so great when we fail. Moreover, it’s generally pretty clear whether we’ve succeeded or failed, isn’t it, because in most of the contexts in which we act, expectations are defined and outcomes subsequently rewarded or punished.
Since we’ve also been conditioned since birth to seek pleasure and avoid pain, the success vs. failure dichotomy goes deep and is hard to confront. Culturally, we reinforce that dichotomy over and over as well:
“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” football coach Red Sanders told us.
Yoda was just as humorless in the Star Wars saga: “Do or do not. There is no try.”
In order to be a good futurist, innovator, or I would even say human being, these days, we need to remember that the success-failure dichotomy is socially and contextually constructed. That is, it’s defined by the rules of the particular game that’s in play. Put yet another way, it’s defined mostly by others.
More than that, the ways in which success and failure are often defined support a specific status quo, and therefore look backward, by virtue of their intrinsic participation in a legacy context or construct. A familiar example might be the success the oil industry has had in developing technologies to profitably extract oil from previously marginal locations. It’s a success in today’s game in that it maintains our global fossil fuel economy and keeps gas prices affordable for consumers, but the oil industry’s present success seems a collective failure of the future in that it may delay serious efforts to move us beyond fossil fuels.
Well, someone always wins and someone always loses, we might say, but intelligent consideration of such an example needs to go beyond winners and losers to consider the construct or game in which these actions play out. To shift from the present into a sustainable future is to shift the construct, and where future thinkers add value has to be in analyzing, modeling and prototyping possibilites for the where and how of such shifts.
I think this perspective also applies to our individual personal and professional lives. Maybe if we stop thinking in terms of success and failure, and start thinking in open possibilities, defining and shifting our own context, it might change the way we see our work and ourselves. The next time you do or try something, maybe try to resist letting the status quo construct define the outcome. Instead, try to define the outcome within your own context and see if you feel differently about it.
Finally, I’d like to suggest a modification of Yoda’s famous “there is no try” phrase, for futurists and, well, all of us: There is do, do not, and also try. Our great challenge is to figure out which one, in which context, works the best.