|27 January 2016|

By Paul MacAlindin – conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq 

Whilst developing the electric light bulb, Edison quipped: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Tired of gurus telling you that success only comes after repeated failure, and yet you still have to pay the price for failing? That is, of course, a central, and unavoidable paradox of successful innovation.

People who can’t help but think radically, who put their necks on the line for their vision again and again, coming up with great ideas, failing often, they’re the ones who take the real risks and pay the real price. Bigger players, the late adopters, wait to see who has the edge, and at their most vulnerable, swipe whatever is going and adapt it to their established business models, leaving the small player, usually some poor sodding freelancer, in the mud. It’s happened to me, and it’s probably happened to you.

So, how to protect ourselves and fail successfully at the same time? We could start by removing anyone in our lives who is blocking us, because in order to continually fail, learn and pick ourselves back up for the next round, we need a support system of true believers with as much stamina as us. Then, we might ask who we really are: incremental innovators, who change processes step by step, like a Kaizen black belt, or disruptive and visionary innovators, like Steve Jobs? Do our bosses really want our creativity and taste for risk, or is that just lip service? Are our customers ready to pull the rug out from under our feet for being too safe, or too dangerous? Will we ever learn to risk making the changes that turn those quantum leaps of the imagination into reality?

In 2008, I could risk creating the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq only after decades of experimentation, painful learning and tenacious belief in what I offer as a musician and human being. Beautifully, this was one risk nobody else had the balls or wherewithal to take, and so I attained what academics call unique inimitable advantage. Yes, we should learn from analyses and articles to steer us away from pure folly, but without hard experience and solid faith in ourselves, I reckon we can never learn the art of risk taking, failing and therefore innovating. Most importantly, we’ll never learn resilience. With enough of that, all the lessons we seek will eventually become apparent.

For me, faith in oneself is that sense of knowing what is worth committing to without a shred of evidence to evaluate the risks. It’s not instinct, which comes from experience, but rather intuition, staying open to slight signals in the environment and passionate about potential. And if failure thwarts us again, we face a simple life choice: bitterness or wisdom.

Of course, every decision sets its price, and Seth Godin’s useful little book, The Dip, asks a couple of key questions about whether or not we’re flogging a dead horse:

Is my persistence going to pay off in the long run?

When should I quit? I need to decide now, not when I’m in the middle of it, and not when part of me is begging to quit.

Tellingly, I set the strategy for the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq at five years, and in year six, we ran out of luck. Writing UPBEAT – the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, forced me to re-evaluate my decisions and look hard at what I’d learnt. Did we fail? A thousand times. Did our successes become the stuff of legend? Absolutely.