Failing Fast Requires a Community to Support You

Joan Steitz (Photo credit: Robert Lisak)

Joan Steitz (Photo credit: Robert Lisak)

Here is a video about the scientific breakthroughs that Dr. Joan Steitz has had in the field of RNA biology. She’s an example of why we wanted to create the Alveare Collective’s workshop on Failing Fast for Women. 

Dr. Steitz was recently awarded the Lasker-Koshland Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science or the “American Nobel”. Beyond her accomplishments, she also manages to be an exceptional citizen in science, advocating for women in STEM. 

In this video her colleagues say about her: "The other thing that distinguishes Joan and other great scientists is that they’re fearless” and another colleague says "To be a good scientist, you really have to take risks.”

Later, Dr. Steitz has this exchange with the interviewer: 

Dr. Steitz: I guess I’ve always felt that you have to be better overall than the men… That’s not fair. That’s where we need to be fighting.”

Interviewer: How do we fight?

Dr. Steitz: Communally

Let’s start fighting communally to create a world where women are free to fail fast too. Full interview is available at:


Wharton psychologist Adam Grant was interviewed by Kara Swisher on the Recode Decode podcast.  He talked extensively about the Fail Fast culture of Silicon Valley and how it unfortunately rewards outcomes more than processes.  Full podcast availabe here

The theme I hear most in Silicon Valley is we gotta to celebrate failure. We gotta build a Fail Fast culture. And I think that’s a joke...

Nobody wants to celebrate failure. Failure is horrible. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect anyone to [celebrate failure.] I think though we can get better at normalizing failure and say, ‘Look, it’s a natural part of trying hard things and doing experiments. Let’s not freak out and have a witch hunt every time something goes wrong.’

I think where I see most companies get this wrong is they do accountability around outcomes. They measure outcomes. They want to know ‘Did you succeed or fail?’

What I’d like to see if a shift toward process accountability. ‘Let’s look at the decision process that you used to bet on this idea.’ And I’d like to see good processes with bad outcomes rewarded because those were smart experiments. And bad processes with good outcomes, those should be punished. Because that’s just luck.

And I don’t think we don’t do enough digging around “you didn’t hit your [outcomes] - why not?” And if you had a pretty good plan that didn’t work out, I’m much more comfortable with that rather than a bad plan that did work out.

I think I common example that I’ve seen over and over again is an engineering team who has an idea for a new product. And they bet on a new product and it’s a smashing success and they all get promoted. And you find out they didn’t do their homework. They had an idea and they ran with it. They got lucky. I think we should be less willing to reward that.

I think on the flip side I’ve seen lots of engineering teams come up with a product ideas that flop. They did a careful analysis, here’s the likelihood of success, and they knew why it failed and it was a good learning opportunity for the company and too often that gets dismissed or punished.

[As a result], those people are seen as not going places in the long term. So yeah maybe they helped us rule something out, but if they were really stars they would have made something work.

The desire to be different from other women

Just you and the moon.  Photo by  Jordan Steranka  on  Unsplash

Just you and the moon.  Photo by Jordan Steranka on Unsplash

How much can an individual woman reset people's expectations of all women? 

The New York Times interviewed a corporate employee who sued her employer for pregnancy discrimination. Erin Murphy's quote really highlights her desire to be different from other women and the perceptions that society has for women.

The New York Times and their pregnancy discrimination coverage.  Full content is here.  The quotes below are from The Daily podcast interview that Michael Barbaro did with Erin Murphy.  


Erin Murphy: "I was pretty nervous about being pregnant.  I was pretty nervous about how it was going to impact my career so I waited a long time to tell work... Since I had a pretty friendly relationship with [my boss]. I pulled him aside and let him know. 

I said 'I'm having a baby. I'm 18 weeks along.'  

And he asked, "Why did you wait so long to tell me?"

And I said, 'I'm been very concerned that it's going to impact my career.  

His response was, 'Well it won't impact it, but it will plateau it'

Michael Barbaro: Plateau it?  That's a fancy way of saying your career is going to stay where it is now?

Erin Murphy: Yes. I was immediately defensive to prove to him that it wasn't going to change me.

Michael Barbaro: "But in the back of your mind, did you believe him?"

Erin Murphy: "I think I still had hope. I think I still felt like 'Well, he doesn't know me. Maybe that happened with other women, but I'm going to work even harder and put in 10x the effort than I've already put in and prove it different and prove him wrong and maybe they'll see that women can be mothers and have great careers.  To me it was very important that I didn't get stereotyped.

I’m going to work even harder and put in 10x the effort than I’ve already put in and prove it different and prove him wrong...To me it was very important important to me that I didn’t get stereotyped.

Michael Barbaro: "And what is the stereotype you were afraid of?"

I think that it's sort of known that once you're a 'mother''s a game changer.  You're different, you're not on the same playing field anymore. I thought I could be different. I thought that I would find a way to be a mom, but to also be a woman with an amazing, growing career.  

To me, Erin's story shows the impossibility of creating societal changes just based on individual merit. Even though Erin came back from maternity leave, lined up exquisite childcare, had a supportive husband, and essentially worked two jobs for the company, she still didn't get recognition for her accomplishments and is now suing.  What did the company get out of this deal?  A worker who was willing to work two jobs for one salary.  

What if we could do the collective work to change stereotypes about women, minorities, older people, etc. so that way it wouldn't just be on the shoulders of individuals to try and then bump up against structural/societal issues? 

Lastly, I want to draw attention to the response of Erin Murphy's boss, when she expressed concern that pregnancy was going to impact her career.  

Well it won’t impact it, but it will plateau it

A career plateau is a type of career impact. It seems like there's a level of denial of Erin's concern. And it turns out that her concern was actually very valid. Do you related to any part of this story? Personally, I was younger I thought that I was special and different and that I would be able to use just hard work to reach my goals.  As I've gotten older, that belief has been challenged and I'm realizing that it's going to require more effort than I can expend on an individual level.  

What drives you?

Photo credit: Photo by  Kristina Wagner  on  Unsplash

Photo credit: Photo by Kristina Wagner on Unsplash

If you want to build great things, it helps to be driven by a spirit of benevolence. The startup founders who end up richest are not the ones driven by money. The ones driven by money take the big acquisition offer that nearly every successful startup gets en route. The ones who keep going are driven by something else. They may not say so explicitly, but they’re usually trying to improve the world. Which means people with a desire to improve the world have a natural advantage.
— Paul Graham

Aren't all good things in life worth a little bit of risk?

david wise photo.jpg

Once you start looking for examples of risk taking, it's easy to find stories.  In an NPR interview, David Wise, Olympics gold medalist in men's freestyle skiing said, "Aren't all good things in life worth a little bit of risk?"  You can listen to the full interview here.   

After having 2 failed runs down the Olympic slopes, he psyched himself up for the 3rd run by telling himself:

I could do my job. I was put on this earth to, uh, skiing is what I was made to do and I could glorify God through failure and I could enlighten people's lives through failure just as much as success.  I got one more shot at this and I'm gonna let it rip.

I really enjoyed hearing Wise say that he wasn't afraid of failure because he honored the skiing gifts he was given. He prioritized the process of expressing those gifts fully over the product--concern about a win. I want this for all women.

Image credit @_BWPhoto