we fail to fail


“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas A. Edison

“Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.” – Coco Chanel

I hate being wrong. Why is it that one of the most powerful teaching devices (if not the most) is shunned or not permitted in architecture? You’re thinking – hey stupid it’s a profession, making mistakes costs money and potentially endangers the public. True, but I’m not advocating putting the public in harm’s way or being irresponsible with our clients’ money or even time. Obviously, failure in the literal sense is not going to be accepted in our professional world any more than a doctor who performs surgery on the opposite knee or a lawyer who accidentally breaks the very law she is trying to uphold. A math error from a CPA causing a tax audit might be hard to forgive just as the chemical engineer who transposes the critical formula incorrectly (boom). Some would argue that failure is the price of innovation (at whose expense?). Therefore, it is critical to distinguish between failure and mistakes.

Last week I was part of a jury reviewing final projects for first-year architecture students. Most of the day, I happened to be sitting next to Laszlo Kiss (formerly of UKZ Design Inc…look him up) and he came up with an analogy that I found relevant. I admit this analogy breaks down eventually, but here goes. Multiple skills make up a figure skating routine, which are connected to make a wonderful show. Each element, be it a triple Lutz, a camel spin or a lift in pairs skating, must be practiced and perhaps mastered individually. One might try a triple Salchow hundreds of time, falling repeatedly before getting it right. However, the path to greatness comes from hurts and injuries.

 “When you take risks, you learn that there will be times when you succeed and there will be times when you fail, and both are equally important.” – Ellen DeGeneres

If you’re thinking is limited to failure solely while developing skills, you’re missing the point. Let’s move on from skating and focus on the repetition and the learning from trying. One must do something repeatedly before seeing any measure of success. A favorite saying in school was “there are no Mozarts in architecture.” No, I’m not going to explain that one. Cooking is probably a better metaphor, but it’s too late to start over.

How might we embrace failure? Can we cite some examples? I’d love to hear yours and how you define it. Let me share a few to start this conversation.

Education – Architecture school is the epitome of accepting failure. For some, this is the first time they have experienced a struggle in school. Professors can smell the fear and often need to reprogram the restricted thinking of young students to get them to see bigger and think broader. Projects are geared to encourage testing, trying, failing and redoing. We may meet our twin friends – trial and error – for the first time as good design solutions are not intuitive or natural. The boot camp mentality is often implemented to wean the student from their safe environment and introduce them to a better way of thinking. I came to school with above average skills with a large background in art, model building and other forms of making, but I can attest that an X-Acto knife is no respecter of fingers and makes no apologies.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” – Winston Churchill

Design – The right solution is probably the one that hasn’t been done before by that designer. Certainly, there is an advantage to experience and clients will often select an architect simply because they have designed dozens if not hundreds of their building type. Perhaps because they failed at all the previous attempts. Would you want to be the first appendectomy of a new surgical resident? Think about that one for a while. Nevertheless, I have trained myself (due to previous fails) to search for what I don’t know early in the planning phase. Talk to me for a short while and I’ll eventually say something like “I am far more interested in searching for questions than answers.” Lately, I’ve been a bit more daring in sharing less refined and less resolved ideas with clients as a means of being transparent in the search for a solution. With a bit of wisdom and discretion, I want them to see that coming to a place of resolution is not a linear process and must address and ignore all the aspects of a project. I have learned, the hard way, how to invite them into the conversation of exploring alternatives instead of more formal presentations of what I’d hope to be final solutions. There is risk to this and sometimes it bombs. Hopefully the next time we remember.

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” – Henry Ford

Details –My path to being an architect is paved with a healthy base of building technology, construction experience and mechanical intuition. For those who grew up playing outside, we learned by making (and breaking) things. I love details and it is often a detail that initially inspires; materials can drive the form of the original idea. However, if one isn’t conversant with that material – look out. Having to look at the client and answer for one’s work is a powerful motivator to get it right. There are large sums of money at risk and very little understanding for mistakes. So how can we distinguish between a mistake and a failure when it comes to a project’s details?

On a recent project under construction, I required the sub-contractor to make a mock-up of a new metal cladding corner detail. The execution of it would either clarify my ideas or cloud them in a bulky, pedestrian result. After the initial mock-up of the detail (as it appeared in the manufacturer’s web site and on my drawings) was not working, I was scratching my head and a bit worried. Fortunately, I’ve learned through the years, to be calm, assemble the team and remember the mock-up is there as a final test of concept. The manufacturer’s representative came out to the site and we worked it out standing outside looking at it while scribbling on his notepad. What I really loved about this process is we came up with a better-looking detail and one that worked better within the material’s limits. This happened by a manufacturer’s representative, a sub-contractor and an architect working together, speaking the language of the material with one common goal. I told the rep. that he should take this back to the manufacturer and have them FIX their standard details based on this event. I know I will update my details accordingly. I’m still a bit mad at myself for not ‘seeing’ this originally.

Can we accept failure as a powerful educator? Will architects, who are not natural risk takers, find a way to exit their comfort zone to make better architecture? To me the only failure is the one who refused to try (ignoring what Yoda said). Be professional though, because fixing a leaky roof is expensive.


“You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.” – Johnny Cash

we fail to fail

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