Chip MacGregor

January 13, 2012

Failing Forward – a guest blog by Alton Gansky


A 2010 issue of Wired magazine contains “The Master Planner,” an article/interview with Fred Brooks, an early computer programmer and former department head for IBM. Thirty-five years ago he wrote a small book, The Mythical Man-Month in which he argued against the idea that two programmers can achieve twice as much work as one in a month. This became known as “Brooks Law.” He has written another new book The Design of Design, a collection of essays dealing with leadership, hardware systems, and more.

Two comments from the interview caught my attention; comments that deal with life and creativity. Author/editor Kevin Kelly brought up a statement Brooks made about some of his early work. Brooks called the IBM 360 OS “the worst computer programming language ever devised by anybody, anywhere.” When Kelly asked him about the frank self-appraisal, Brooks said:

"You can learn more from failure than success. In failure you’re forced to find out what part did not work. But in success you can believe everything you did was great, when in fact some parts may not have worked at all. Failure forces you to face reality.”

This bit of honesty is difficult for some to swallow. People in my profession are often insecure about their work and become defensive. Who can blame them? They work alone and try to create from nothing a piece of work that will entertain, educate, and please not only readers but a phalanx of editors, pub boards, professional reviewers, amateur reviewers, bookstore managers, and more. Sometimes writing for publication seems akin to baring one’s back for flogging. So, we become sensitive souls; tender in all the wrong places.

Writing, however, is a craft and an art, one which requires the writer to have the guts to commit to self-examination. You need to know this: I am the poster boy for insecurity. I always have been. I’ve felt that way in every career I’ve had–and I’ve had several of them. Yet I’ve learned that creative growth comes faster when I focus on what I could have done better rather than what I did right.

Writing is a continuous process of learning. I have trouble reading my books after they've been published. Not because they're bad, but because I keep seeing little "failures."

The second quote—an anecdote—that caught my eye is this:

"Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid camera once said that his method of design was to start with a vision of what you want and then, one by one, remove the technical obstacles until you have it."

I’ve heard similar statements, but this one hits the bull’s-eye. What do you want from your creativity, from your writing? Can you see it? Does it seem real to you? Good. What stands in your way? Start removing obstacles. Al’s Axion #45: See it, believe it, do it.

Consider Brook’s quotes together: Learn your from your mistakes; start removing obstacles. The key is to learn to fail forward.

Alton Gansky is a professional used-to-be who is now a full-time writer, the author/principle writer of over 40 books including novels and nonfiction work. He is also the director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference ( When not writing he likes to torture hardwood into furniture or capture reality with his Canon digital camera. (Who is he kidding, he's always writing.)

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