My friend Scott Fisher asked to give a last minute talk to his class at USC the other day. The topic request was vague – Safecast, Hackerspaces, whatever else comes up. I really like discussions that are more open ended like this and was excited to see which things I had to say sparked the students attention. The first hour was a lot of straight forward presentation with the second hour (d)evolving into more question and answer about life and philosophy rather than any particular topic.
Things took a twist when one student suggested that all my projects seem to be very successful, and I had to correct him and note that I don’t get asked to come talk about the failures. At which point we started talking about all the trials and errors you go through before those “successes.” I pointed out – hopefully clearly enough that everyone got what I was getting at – that the failures aren’t actually a bad thing, aren’t actually failures. They are lessons. They are steps. You have to take those steps if you want to go anywhere, if you want to pull anything off. Refusing to take those chances ensures you won’t have any successes. It demands risk. That’s either a chance you want to take or not. Some people can’t stomach the risk, some people can’t live without it.
One student asked me what the biggest mistake I ever made was. How the hell do you answer a question like that? I answered that I didn’t know what the biggest mistake was, but talked about a decision that I’d made a few years back – I walked away from a company shortly before it sold for many, many, many millions of dollars. Some of which would have ended up in my pocket. Had I chosen the other option – my life would be very, very different right now. But maybe not for the better – just different. Scott noted, excellently I might add, that had I chosen that other route many of the cool things I was there to talk about may never have happened. Or at least, I might not have been involved with them.
I’ve been thinking about that conversation a lot since then, and I think I might have given the students the wrong idea. I don’t think that decision was a mistake. I may have suggested that I did, or may have given that impression. I’m very happy with the direction I’ve chosen for my life. I don’t regret that choice at all. I probably should have made that more clear – my point was more that sometimes small decisions can have huge impacts and that specific situation just happened to be on my mind that day.
I think what I would have liked to express a bit clearer to those students before they graduate and head out to the world is that a lot of people spend endless effort fighting to get to the middle. The spend their whole lives trying to do the same thing everyone else does. To me, there’s nothing appealing about that at all. In fact, the more people doing something the less attractive it is to me. Or rather, it’s less interesting. And the rewards for doing it are less satisfying.
Horray! You did the same thing as everyone else! Way to go!
I’d so much rather spend my time and efforts on something new. On something different. Maybe that is the road paved with endless
failures lessons, but it’s also the road that can lead to massive success. And it certainly leads to massive satisfaction. If you spend all your time doing the same thing as everyone else, the absolute best thing you can hope for is mediocrity. If you spend your time on things you think are awesome, the worst thing that can happen is you look back to see you spent your short time here on this planet doing things you think are awesome. Not a single person fighting for the middle can say that. This route isn’t paved with fame or fortune, but I can’t fathom choosing any other way.
I want those kids to know that.
It’s not about failures vs successes, it’s about choosing to do the things you love.