Learning on the edge of the cliff

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!

Yeah, that always works out.

Burkeman again:

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


About mollificence

library student, writer, mom, Kindle addict View all posts by mollificence

11 responses to “Learning on the edge of the cliff

  • Bob Lucore

    Nice post! I really enjoy learning vicariously through the interesting experiences of you and so many others in this class. You discussion of “Goalodicy” reminds me of an old Pete Seeger tune:

    • Molly McKinney

      Heh! I was actually thinking of “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls when I was writing the post, and almost posted that video. 🙂

      I have to admit Waist Deep in the Big Muddy works even better. 🙂

  • Michael Stephens

    This resonates:

    “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. ”

    You’ll see me invoke chaos soon in a lecture, citing Shirkey. Embracing chaos and all that comes with it can help us continually redefine goals and mission.

  • Paul Barrows

    OMG I’ve been cited!! I’ve never seen my name on a reference list before – you made my day 🙂

    Your reflections on what happens when ego and identity get tangled up with goals are very insightful additions to this conversation. When I think about it, some of the nastiest experiences I’ve had in organizations have to do with this issue. Besides leading to faulty or reckless decision-making, this entanglement is demoralizing because the goal of the organization is no longer its stated mission, but instead to keep a leader’s fragile ego propped up. While perhaps outdated in some of its details, Buckland’s manifesto is such an apt reminder that people and technology at all levels need to remain clear about what the mission is, and be willing to let go of means that don’t lead to that end.

    • Molly McKinney

      Great point! Be clear about what the real goal is, and refine it as you go along.

      While I was looking up Kayes and his term goalodicy (to be sure I had my references straight), I came across a book review of Kayes book “Destructive Goal Pursuit” on the web, by an amateur mountaineer. I almost included it but it seemed like a bit of a detour. But since you got me started….the woman writing talks about going on a mountain expedition with her dad on Mt Rainier. Her father told her “the summit is NOT your goal.” The real goal:

      “The parking lot,” Dad said. “When we’re at the summit, we’re
      only halfway. We have to make it back to the car. That’s the goal.”

      Reaching the summit (the apparent goal) isn’t all that useful if we fail to achieve an even more basic goal.

      ( The link to the review if anyone is interested:
      http://www.andrews.edu/services/jacl/article_archive/3_2_fall_2009/10_br_destructive.pdf )

      And, glad to give you the thrill of seeing you name up in lights. Er, pixels. 😉

  • Matthea

    Beautiful post. And I love that you quoted Fromm (I very nearly did so myself, but couldn’t narrow it down to one quote – great selection on your part).
    I really like how you touch on our need to get “X latest greatest technology,” and then everything will solve itself. I wrote a paper about medical libraries and digital tools last term, especially social media, and I read a lot about libraries that were adopting blogs, facebook, and twitter, but then not really using them to any sort of logical advantage. It was a definite example of adopting technology for technology’s sake, and those libraries continued to have problems connecting with (particularly younger) users, like medical school students and residents. They also continued to have problems increasing library use (surprise, surprise).

    • Molly McKinney

      It does seem like often technology gets adopted because “all the cool kids are doing it so we have to too.”

      I don’t think you always have to have a clear vision of what you want a given technology to accomplish, maybe you can just try new things and see what happens, but even if you’re just trying something out to shake things up and ‘see what happens,’ you have to use deliberation and attention AFTER the fact in order to see what might be valuable in the new thing. to be attentive so you can see what DOES happen, and what useful place it might lead.

  • Bob Lucore

    It is delightfully gratifying to see that people still read Eric Fromm. I thought he was long forgotten. His reference to “The Quest for Certainty” refers to the title of a book by another favorite author of mine, John Dewey. Great stuff.

  • Molly McKinney

    Sorry I’ve been AWOL for several days…I was coping with a very sick child (stomach bug or food poisoning–got serious enough to bring the doctor into it to rule out more serious causes)–and washing pretty much every sheet and towel in the house. 😮

    Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful and interesting comments on my blog–sorry I did not get to it sooner.

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