Apr 19, 2018

What Being Charlie Brown Taught Me About Failure

By: Jacob Smith


It's a little known fact that I had quite the musical theater career from 1992-1998. Don't bother with trying to find me on IMDB, high school productions of Fiddler on the Roof don't qualify for publication.

My senior year, I played the title role in You're A Good Man Charlie Brown. The second act of the musical starts with Charlie Brown flying a kite. If you know the comic strip, you know this never works out for Charlie Brown.

The kite is always crushed, but Charlie Brown's spirit is resilient. He keeps trying to get the kite in the air frame after frame. His failures don't deter him from trying again.

We need a bit more of Charlie Brown in our psyche. The ability to fail but be undeterred is vital for anyone or any organization that is looking to do something new.

There is no path to innovation that doesn't tread near defeat. Insert number of times Edison tried and failed to create the lightbulb here.

It's a fair criticism to say that Charlie Brown doesn't learn from his mistakes. He doesn't make the iterative changes we know are necessary to innovate.

But I would offer that his stubbornness is underrated. Not every failure has a clear learning. Sometimes you just have to stubbornly try again even though you didn't change a thing.

Imaging you are trying a new audience for a Facebook ad. In the first month the new audience is performing 10 percent better than other audiences. You obviously keep it rolling. The next month the performance drops off. What do you do?

I would venture, most people will give the new tactic another month. If results decline again, you will likely move on to another tactic.

But what if in that first month results were down even 5 percent? How willing would you be to try it for a second month? Could you justify that to your boss?

We need to realize that when you only have one attempt at something you don't have enough data to know if initial success is a flash in the pan or initial failure is a harbinger of doom.

I'm not saying that consistent failure is O.K. I am saying we can give the people we work with permission to try something they believe in more than once.

And the end of the kite song, Charlie Brown's kite is (briefly) aloft. Our glum hero exults that it's caught the breeze and is past the trees, with room to spare.

I can't say that previous failures are guaranteed to take flight. But it is certain that ideas that never see the light of day have no chance. Perhaps rather than grasping for new ideas, revisiting some old ones has merit.





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