The Failure Manifesto

Hi, everybody. My name is Laurie Ruettimann. I wear many hats, but most people know me as a writer, speaker and HR lady.

About a year ago I learned about a concept called a premortem. It’s an easy theory to embrace. Before you do anything — from applying for a job to organizing a bachelorette party — ask yourself “How will this fail?”

Give yourself 90 seconds and write down your answers. At the end of those 90 seconds, have a look at what you’ve written. You know what you have? It’s the beginning of a plan to beat failure.

I love this concept because I’m all too familiar with failure. It’s baked into my DNA. My story starts with my maternal grandfather. He was a brave Marine who fought in World War II.

Turns out he had a bad habit — he liked to chase skirts. You know what that means, right? Yeah, he loved a lot of women in his day, including my grandmother. He got her pregnant before they were married, which was the ultimate form of failure in 1948.

But my grandmother was tough. Failure was not an option. She married that scoundrel, and they had four girls. She tried to avoid the appearance of failure by making it work, but nobody bought it. Several of her daughters were pregnant before they were married, just like my grandmother, and none of them ever went to college. Heck, my mother never even finished high school.

But my grandmother wouldn’t concede defeat. She was a strategic optimist. That’s a psychological term used to describe people who can’t process failure. The idea of failing gave her anxiety attacks and hives.

Clearly she was in denial. But she’s not alone. You know people like this. You may be one of them. You will smile through the pain; there’s no task too hard and no deadline that’s insurmountable.

When strategic optimists fail, they fail hard. They become ruinously sentimental and start to dream about what could have been instead of attending to the chaos around them.

And that mental loop of sentimentality? Well, it’s unhealthy and creates a sense of “learned helplessness.” Reminds me of disengaged workers who can’t seem to break out of the funk. Why try to change the system if all you’re going to do is fail?

So, my brother and I popped out in the late 1970s, and we’re like, “Fudge this. We’re going to do things differently.”

And we did do things differently. We went to college. We married wonderful people and managed to stay married. I believe it’s because we developed the habit of defensive pessimism.

What’s defensive pessimism? It’s simple. The glass isn’t half-empty. It’s not half-full. But it might contain poison that’s trying to kill you. Look out.

Unfortunately, defensive pessimism made me into a Debbie Downer. I’m a worst-case-scenario planner who is prepared for everything — nuclear war, chaos, riots — except the one thing that’s about to doom me to failure.

There’s a spectrum of behavior between strategic optimism and defensive pessimism. You won’t jinx yourself if you think about failure before you start a project, just as you won’t get hit by a bus just because you accidentally forget to worry about being hit by a bus.

But there is a better way to beat failure.

Learn the universal forces of failure.

They are budget, commitment, communications, competency, conflict, expectations, politics, scope, team and time. These are the known and unknown glitches that make you loan money to your cousin who doesn’t have a job or trust a boss who always steals your ideas. Look for the universal forces of failure in all of your relationships. Fight them with every fiber of your being. And if you’re going to fail, go down swinging.

Delay gratification.

It feels great, in theory, to say “take this job and shove it.” It doesn’t feel so awesome when your credit card bill is due. If we’ve learned one thing from science, it’s that long-term thinking can be taught. You don’t have to be a genius to catch yourself in the act of being an asshole sooner rather than later. It just takes practice.

Engage in reflection.

My local university, North Carolina State, adopted a campus-wide motto: Think and Do. It’s plastered all over its social media accounts, and I recently wrote “think and do” on a Post-It note and put it above my computer. The simple art of reflection has already saved me from my undoing many times.

Finally, do a premortem.

This is what GlitchPath is all about. We are creating software to help your team predict how you will fail. Until our software is ready, use paper. Ask yourself how you’re about to fail. Give yourself 90 seconds and write down the answers. And then read what you’ve written, please. It’s a love letter from a better version of you in the future who is trying to save your skin.

Listen, I know it’s not possible to beat all forms of failure, but I believe it’s possible to stop making the same stupid mistakes. My goal for you is to make new and more interesting mistakes.

So, please, embrace the premortem and think long and hard about your actions. I believe in you.

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