A quick internet search of the phrase “fail fast” brings up a mixed bag of business articles, strategy tips, and tech blogs. In April 2018, Forbes magazine published an article titled “How to Fail Fast–and Why You Should,” only to publish “The Foolishness of Fail Fast, Fail Often” five months later. It’s a popular phrase among the lines of being “lean” (i.e., cutting funding) and “agile,” (i.e., pushing through change that might or might not be well-planned).
The corporate buzz speak is strong with this one.
In an environment of ever-contradictory advice, when is a good case for failing fast?
Let me direct your attention away from the world of cubicles and conference calls to the dojang. A few nights ago I was training with two of my instructors and two other black belts. The youngest of the three of us students was having some trouble with nailing his spin kick. His leg–and his confidence–were lagging, making him drag and slump and miss his target about half the time.
“If you’re going to miss, miss fast,” one of my instructors said. He reassured the student that it was okay to make a mistake; just keep moving rather than lagging on the spot and trying to reset. He made the point that in a sparring situation or a real-life self-defense situation you don’t have time to stop, make a correction, reset, and either try the same move again or finally move on to something different. If you do, you may very well end up on the receiving end of someone’s fist. Being able to miss and recover quickly was a better way to practice realistic technique, at least in this circumstance, than pick everything apart piece by piece (that’s saved for poomsae practice, ha ha).
Two days later I was back in the dojang in a sparring conditioning class. We were working on drills to increase our speed and ability to react. One of the students was struggling a little with timing. A lightbulb went off over the instructors head.
“A few days ago I was telling Melanie that it’s better to miss fast than miss slow. If you miss your first kick, that’ okay. Don’t stop to do it over again. Keep moving right after that.” He quickly slid towards the student with two fast kicks to illustrate his point.
He walked over to me and held out a focus pad to demonstrate the new drill for the other students. I was perched on a mat a few inches off the floor. When he motioned for me to react I quickly hopped off the mat, smacked the pad with a fast front-foot kick and moved in for a back foot roundhouse. I switched my feet to do it on the other side.
This time I missed the first kick and without stopping to think, flew at my instructor with the next kick. We couldn’t have asked for a better teaching moment.
“See what she did?” he said, gesturing at me with the pad. “She missed the first kick but kept moving. That’s what I want you to do.” After a few tries the student got into a good rhythm and got the hang of the drill. I tucked the lesson away in my brain for the next time we were working on combination kicking drills and contact sparring. It took the focus away from getting things perfectly and towards being more realistic about technique, timing, and the quick decisions a martial artist must be able to make in the moment.
I wondered if I had the ability to “miss fast” and recover just as quickly on a more consistent basis in and out of the dojang. I have a natural aversion to failure like most people with a shred of self-consciousness, and I also recognize that it’s a part of life and part of the learning process.
It’s easy to confidently miss and recover in safe, controlled (relatively, anyway) environment like a taekwondo class. The real challenge, and honestly a bit of excitement that comes with it, happens in those unexpected moments, and I don’t think it’s just limited to making obvious mistakes. What about those other “misses”–missed opportunities, missed cues, misinterpretations? Can we treat those as fast fails in order to learn and recover quickly?
If we or our leaders push a culture of failing fast, then the miss and the recovery, like strategy and orchestrated change, should happen in a culture that forgives rather than punishes. It should happen with mindfulness and a penchant towards learning. It should be an opportunity to build confidence and critical thinking.
That approach can hopefully make failure a little less scary.