One of my favorite activities when attending the South-by-Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin (SXSW) is to eavesdrop on people’s conversations. Don’t look at me like that… I am not trying to invade anyone’s privacy or commit an act of corporate espionage. Rather, I am curious to learn what people are talking about, and how they talk. You can learn a lot about what is trending and where to focus your attention based on what you overhear someone say in between bites of a breakfast taco.
With almost 27k people attending just the interactive festival (there are also film and music festivals running somewhat concurrently) there are a lot of conversations to choose from. And yet, there is a surprising amount of overlap in the topics. The biggest topic of discussion is logistics — how many people there are this year (‘its so big and impersonal… I remember when it was still cool’), the challenges of finding a good panel discussion or party, and, of course, the weather. Interesting, but not particularly enlightening stuff at the end of the day. The second most popular topic tends to be which new apps or companies are gaining traction — everyone wants to know, and be connected to, the next big thing. And there are a lot of new apps and companies trying to gain traction here, including so many variations on the same names that its hard to keep them all straight.
If I get really lucky, I will hear some folks talking about what they do, and what works/doesn’t work in their particular company or project. In past years, those discussions about how people work have been dominated by one word: failure. Everyone embraced the idea that failure was valuable, that it was important to learn from mistakes. There were panel discussions devoted to the topic. There were flyers pasted all over town practically challenging people to fail — and be proud of it. Hashtags. Laptop stickers. T-shirts. Failure was everywhere. People were proud to fail. But not this year. I haven’t heard the word failure mentioned yet. Not by a panelist. Not in conversation between two people over an organic smoothie. Nothing. Its almost like people have become afraid of failing – or even talk about it.
Is that possible? Is it possible that failure is no longer a hot topic in the world of startups, designers, media and everything else being discussed here at SXSW? I don’t believe it. Maybe there a different way of building and managing a successful enterprise that has replaced this concept altogether? Or a new buzzword that has replaced failure — a way of talking about the same concept but using a new set of vocabulary?
I can appreciate that nobody wants to fail. It can be awkward, embarrassing, even painful to fail. But failing is important – necessary in fact. We learn from failure. Everybody knows that (I think). And so… my fear is that if people aren’t talking about failure, they aren’t being curious. They aren’t as interested in learning as they have been in the past. They aren’t hungry to try new things, no matter the consequences. If that’s the case, then our ability to create more interesting things, solve more challenging problems, address more complex issues will diminish. If we don’t talk about failure, and we don’t embrace it as we have in the past we won’t get smarter.
I am sure there are people who are talking about failure… I just haven’t found them yet. I will keep listening in people’s conversations and see what I can find out. If you hear anything, let me know.