October 18, 2017

Professional Paradigms New and Old (Part 4): Failure As A Virtue

rhodesAs we saw last week, one way to engage with a paradigm shift is to “walk in stupid every day.” That won’t be easy for professionals: our job is to be smart; our brains are culturally wired with that expectation. Being “stupid” turns that cultural expectation on its ear, makes our brain circuits fritz.

So does another powerful paradigm-busting tool: learning to embrace failure. Professional cultural paradigms include conventional wisdom about how to succeed; flying in the face of them is a set up for failure.

In their book Wired to Create (which we looked at last time), Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire cite the work of psychologist Robert J. Sternberg, who identified several key attributes of people who are “willing to generate and promote ideas that are novel and even strange and out of fashion” — i.e., who would embrace a paradigm shift. According to Dr. Sternberg, that kind of person:

  • Tries to do what others think is impossible;
  • Is a noncomformist;
  • Is unorthodox;
  • Questions societal norms, truisms, and assumptions.

Life is risky for nonconformists. According to Kaufman and Gregoire:

Sternberg found that artists [who participated in his study] said that a creative person is one who takes risks and is willing to follow through on the consequences of those risks. Businesspeople, meanwhile, responded that a creative person in the business world is one who steers clear of the pitfalls of conventional ways of thinking.

The inherent risks of unconventional thinking require a willingness to fail — so says organizational psychologist Adam Grant in his TED talk on “The Surprising Habits of Original Thinkers”:

The greatest originals are the ones who fail the most, because they’re the ones who try the most. You need a lot of bad ideas in order to get a few good ones.

No wonder W+K — the uber-creative ad agency we looked at last time — has a Fail Harder Wall.

Then what about our professional obligation to be smart, and steer clear of risk and failure? David P Barash, evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology and biology at the University of Washington, tackles that conundrum in an article entitled “Paradigms Lost” that begins this way:

Science is not a “body of knowledge” – it’s a dynamic, ongoing reconfiguration of knowledge and must be free to change.

The capacity for self-correction is the source of science’s immense strength, but the public is unnerved by the fact that scientific wisdom isn’t immutable. Scientific knowledge changes with great speed and frequency – as it should – yet public opinion drags with reluctance to be modified once established. And the rapid ebb and flow of scientific “wisdom” has left many people feeling jerked around, confused, and increasingly resistant to science itself.

Unlike science, the law profession’s conventional cultural paradigm does not embrace change “with great speed and frequency.” On the other hand, the new paradigm/technology-driven legal practice developments do precisely that — which, according to the existing paradigm, makes them a high risk, fast road to failure.

Those who choose to innovate in the face of this risk need creativity and courage. Once again, this is from Wired to Create:

The history of creative thought and social progress is littered with similar stories of banned books, culture wars, persecuted artists, and paradigm-shifting innovations that change the way we look at the world.

In choosing to do things differently, [creative people] accept the possibility of failure — but it is precisely this risk that opens up the possibility of true innovation.

But can a professional paradigm truly embrace failure? More next time.

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Check out this collection of last year’s Future of Law blog posts. It’s a FREE download. Also included is the Culture of Law series from the second half of 2015. Click this link or the cover for downloading details.

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