Ignorance is bliss. How to avoid learning to fail.

Tim Smit is the man who dreamt of the Eden Project and made it a reality. Eden is an inspiring location and ethos, a ravaged clay pit transformed into a botanical utopia. It’s the archetypal success story, the vision that inspired planners, architects, financiers and horticulturalists to unite behind one man to achieve something incredible.

Smit has just released a new book (http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/products/tim+smit/eden/6095490/) which covers the first ten years of Eden, from conception to reality. It’s an intriguing read, charting his own emotional journey as well as the journey of the project.

One theme that he returns to time and again is how success came because the vision was wide and because he was unconstrained by having learnt how to fail. Many of the organisations and structures that he was liaising with had an organisational tendency to say no, to look for the negative, to consider the points of failure, without any process or mechanism for considering the vision, the breadth of ambition, the potential to step outside of the ordinary and achieve something extraordinary.

So often we allow ourselves to be constrained by the parameters of what’s been done before, to be structured in our thinking by the failure we have endured or the management of risk. Learning is a journey into the unknown; by definition, you have to have the risk of failure to succeed, but it’s possible to engineer the failure into the thinking from the start. We can run the risk of having learnt to fail before we learn to succeed.

So how is it that Tim Smit was able to learn to succeed in fields where he had little expertise; by his own admission he was fairly ignorant of many of the disciplines of accounting, project management, structural engineering and planning that sat at the heart of the project. Our assumption that the best placed person to fulfil a role is one who is trained or qualified for that role may itself be fundamentally flawed. Having done it before may not be the best qualification for doing it again. It might be that we’ve just learnt to fail. Sometimes, being ignorant of how to fail may actively help us to succeed.

This isn’t some mandate to employ unqualified people, or to blithely charge into areas where we have little expertise. It’s just that we need to learn to look everywhere for lessons, to understand how people are successful and how they fail, together with what they’ve learnt from those experiences. It’s not that we can necessarily learn from their mistakes (we probably have to make our own mistakes to learn from in a whole host of new areas), but we can at least try to understand if there are notions or concepts that we can strive to understand.

I’ve certainly learnt some new things from reading this, as well as having been reminded of a few lessons that i may have forgotten. The importance of vision, unclouded and unconcerned with structure. The importance of building communities of practice and understanding, of leading with modesty and collaboration, of investing personal energy as well as money in a project, of being prepared to trust and believe in other people, of having the humility to fail, because “if you show respect, you get it back, and if you fail while being true to yourself people will forgive you because they know you tried’ (Smit, 2011, p.139)

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
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