My thinking for this reflection was kick-started by my classmate Paul Barrow’s excellent reflection, here.
Since I have worked for many startups, I was very intrigued by the article “Think Like a Startup” by Brian Mathews. As I was reading (even before I got to the part about “Fail Faster, Fail Smarter,” p. 5), I was thinking, you know, what you really need to learn from startups is how to fail—just do it sooner! Not after you have committed so much to the goal that you can’t—or won’t—draw back.
I worked for a couple of startups that didn’t fail faster and smarter at all—they just failed, after spending a LOT of VC money. Mathews’ vision of startups seemed a little romanticized to me. (He rather seems to gloss over that nine in ten failure rate.)
Paul Barrows writes: “Okay so I’ll be honest here, this is where I start to get a little anxiety reaction. I have worked in this kind of environment, albeit not in a library, and he is right, it is messy and disruptive. A lot of the disruption can lead to dead ends, blocked by piles of rubble. There is an extremely fine line to walk between change for change’s sake, and change that leads somewhere useful.”
I’ve worked in the startup environment too, and it’s an anxiety-making environment. I was typically the only writer in the joint: You’re the technical writer? Good, you can do All The Writing. Write the manuals, write the web pages, write the marketing stuff. (Anyone can do THAT, right? I mean, it’s not like you need to know anything, you just throw in a lot of cool terms like “best of breed” and “innovative solutions” and run spellcheck, and you’re done). Startups—especially back in the good old dot com Jazz Age—were open to new ideas without expertise to back them, and often stubbornly pursued ideas even when it became obvious they weren’t leading anywhere useful.
The idea of “failing faster and failing smarter” led me to think about the concept of “goalodicy”—becoming fixated on a specific goal and unwilling to change it, which can often lead to failing slowly and painfully.
Last year I read The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, by Oliver Burkeman. (Had me at the title.) Burkeman cites Kayes, a former stockbroker and business professor, but also a man who was camping in the foothills of the Himalayas when the 1996 Mount Everest disaster unfolded.
Eight climbers were caught in a blizzard and died, after failing to turn around at the turnaround time needed to make it back to camp safely. “Goalodicy” is the term coined by Kayes to describe the stubborn and reckless commitment to a goal that looks increasingly mistaken, and even—in the case of the Everest climbers—deadly. Investing in a goal to the point of identifying it with themselves, people can’t let go of the specifics of their goal even as the evidence piles up that they are making a mistake, even a suicidal mistake.
The goal, it seemed, had become a part of their identity, and so their uncertainty about the goal no longer merely threatened the plan; it threatened them as individuals. They were so eager to eliminate these feelings of uncertainty that they clung ever harder to a clear, firm and specific plan that provided them with a sense of certainty about the future—even though that plan was looking increasingly reckless. They were firmly in the grip of goalodicy. (Burkeman, pp.80-81)
Mathews writes, “Startups are organizations dedicated to creating something new under conditions of extreme uncertainty” (p. 12). Uncertainty produces anxiety. One possible outcome of the discomfort this causes us is paralysis, but another is a reckless commitment. If we just get ACME LATEST COOL TECHNOLOGY, everything will be great!
What motivates our investment in goals and planning for the future, much of the time, isn’t any sober recognition of the virtues of preparation and looking ahead. Rather, it’s something much more emotional: how deeply uncomfortable we are made by feelings of uncertainty. Faced with the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more fiercely in our preferred vision of that future—not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present. ( p.84)
The speed of technological change guarantees that future library development contains great uncertainties. Is our goal to summit Everest—have the coolest technology? Or is it something else?
If the library is a conversation as Lankes, Silverstein and Nicholson (2012) write, then our goal is a rich and useful conversation. Conversations are inherently unpredictable., uncertain. Staying focused on feeding the conversation, rather than becoming fixated on the technology,seems to me the heart of the Library 2.0. By staying focused on the real goal, not the elusive summit, we can “experience life as a connected conversation” (Lankes, Silverstein and Nicholson p. 26).
The psychologist Erich Fromm wrote, “the quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.” But unfolding our powers means managing our anxiety, and maintaining our ability to learn and change even on the edge of the cliff.
Barrows, P. (2014, January 30). Prayer for the middle-aged library entrepreneur [Blog post]. Retrieved from: http://287.hyperlib.sjsu.edu/pbarrows/2014/01/30/prayer-for-the-middle-aged-library-entrepreneur/
Burkeman, O. (2012). The antidote: happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc.
Lankes, R. D., Silverstein, J., & Nicholson, S. (2012, May 21). Participatory networks: The library as conversation. David Lankes at Smashwords, Inc. Retrieved from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/164561
Mathews, B. (2012, April). Think like a startup [White paper]. Retrieved from http://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/bitstream/handle/10919/18649/Think%20like%20a%20STARTUP.pdf?sequence=1