Friday, June 22, 2012

Failure is data

A popular debate in the tech world is whether failure is good or bad. Eric Schmidt reminded people that at Google, "we celebrate our failures." Taking a contrary position was Jason Fried from 37Signals, who wrote back in 2007 that "I’ve never understood Silicon Valley’s obsession with failure."

NPR's Melissa Block recently visited Silicon Valley to talk about failure, interviewing (among others) Joe Kraus. Joe is who hired me to run Blogger several years ago, and is who brought me to Google Ventures last fall. The whole piece is worth a listen, but I found Joe's comments worth highlighting:
In my mind, the ones who have no fear of failure are merely the dreamers, and the dreamers don't build great companies. The people that thread the line between vision and being able to execute and having this healthy fear of failing that drives them — not paralyzes them, but drives them — to be more persistent, to work harder than the next person, that's a magic formula.
This is the important distinction. When I say I celebrate failure, it's because I see failure as data. Data itself is neither good nor bad: it's just data. But what you do with that data – how you learn from it, how you apply it to future decisions – that's why you "celebrate" failure. Failure in this sense is just a way to help inform future success, not an outcome to be celebrated.

You don't start something assuming you'll fail. And you don't pursue an idea without some awareness that it could fail. But fear of failure shouldn't stop you – as Joe notes, it should motivate you.

I was fortunate to address the 2009 graduating class at my alma mater, Richmond Law. In that address, I said this about failure:
When you think differently, accidents happen. Failures are unavoidable. But accidents aren't always failures, nor are failures always without value. When it's OK to fail, success becomes possible, and, through experimentation, the next step in the path presents itself.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Remembering John Carroll

In March, John Carroll died unexpectedly while jogging around the lake on campus at the University of Richmond. John and I were classmates together over 15 years ago, and reconnected when he returned to the law school as a professor leading the IP law clinic. John contributed an article to the first issue of the Richmond Journal of Law & Technology (a law journal I founded) in 1995, and was an advisor to many JOLT staff over the last several years. When the JOLT editors asked me to write a remembrance of John, I was honored to do so. (It is also published on JOLT's site.)

John and I in the Richmond Times-Dispatch
on the occasion of JOLT's inaugural issue
As much as I came to admire John Carroll in the 15 years that we knew each other, it was at his funeral in March that the full measure of the man became clear and the scope of our loss sank in. John was many things to us at Richmond Law — friend, scholar, mentor — yet he was so much more.

John was a man of deep faith, a man who worked each day to improve the lives of those around him. John showed a respect for others that guided his every interaction, and he took great delight in being surrounded by such passionate and gifted students and colleagues.

JOLT was fortunate to have benefitted from John’s passion in many ways — from his contribution to JOLT’s first issue in 1995 to his mentorship of many JOLT staff in the years that he taught at Richmond Law. As valuable as that support was, all of us who’ve worked on JOLT over the years grieve for a far more fundamental reason: losing John means that an entire generation of Richmond Law students won’t get to know him, learn from him, or benefit from his investment in their success.

I had a history teacher in high school — Winslow Smith — who claimed that he started teaching because it was the only way he knew how to become immortal. His theory was that he’d live on in the memory of his students, and I suppose by recalling his comment from 25 years ago that I’m proving him right.

I don’t want to dwell on the tragedy of John’s untimely death, I want to celebrate the gift that John was to those of us who knew him. Richmond Law continues to be a special place, one that emphasizes community and camaraderie for students and staff. It comes as no surprise that John excelled as both a student and a professor: his commitment to others and his delight in their accomplishments embodied the heart and soul of what makes Richmond Law such a unique institution.

I mourn my friend’s passing. But I cannot help but be grateful for the chance to have met him so many years ago, and for the opportunity to share with you the memory of a great man so that he may live on.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Success and luck

For years, my favorite Michael Lewis piece has been his New Yorker magazine article about Shane Battier, The No-Stats All-Star. (I wrote about why that piece spoke to me here.) As of last weekend, I may have a new favorite: his recent baccalaureate address at Princeton. The entire address is worth watching, but here's the quote that has stuck with me:
If you use better data, you can find better values; there are always market inefficiencies to exploit, and so on. But it has a broader and less practical message: don't be deceived by life's outcomes. Life's outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.
 Watch the address:

Whenever I've been asked for career advice, I have a few common recommendations. The first is that whenever I've had a career choice to make, I always optimize for learning. Even when I'm not entirely sure how that learning will benefit me, I've figured out that the act of learning itself is often what I find most energizing about my work. If you're learning, you will never be bored and you will acquire skills that can help you down the road.

Second, I've tried to follow the example that I encountered in my first "real" work experience, when I was a law clerk at the EFF after my first year of law school. I worked for Shari Steele (who's now the executive director), and had several opportunities to interact with an amazing collection of smart people like Mike Godwin, Jonah Seiger, and Jerry Berman. I was extremely fortunate to find myself in that office that summer, and in many ways, I owe a lot to those early interactions. I learned that getting an answer often just requires asking the question. I discovered that many people — even famous people who you'd think would be too busy to chat with you — are more than happy to help. (And those that aren't? Just ignore them. Life's too short.) These days, I try to answer the questions I'm asked. I remember what an impact that had on me nearly 20 years ago, and what a difference it can make for the person who gets the answer they didn't expect. Read this post about a crazy phone call I made to GE's headquarters during that summer at EFF. Bottom line? Early in your career, ask the question. As you advance in your career, remember what got you there and answer the questions when you're asked.

The more I've thought about Lewis's comments, I've now got another recommendation that I'll share with those who ask me for career advice: allow for luck. I have been extraordinarily lucky in my career. Sure, I've also applied what I knew, worked my ass off, and been pretty resilient through some rough patches along the way. But the minute you stop believing that luck plays a part in where you are, you stop being the person who can benefit from luck. As Lewis notes, you start believing you deserve everything you've got:
In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve [it]. For all I know, you may. But you'll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don't.