Failure is definitely an option (not to mention inevitable)

StrikethroughHeader-1By: Pamela Martin, Utah Library Association Past-President and Idaho Resident

Are you allowed to fail at work?

While it’s probably not great to continually fail at work, failure is an unavoidable part of work, and it should be welcome. Failure teaches us what we are doing wrong and challenges us to be better. As a reference and instruction librarian, I expect my students to be aware of this. I try to teach my students that failure is just part of research – that you actually learn to search better as you fail at searches. In the databases, seemingly perfect keywords will fail you, and titles that seem pertinent will disguise useless, irrelevant information.  Researching is a process of trial and error that can all too often be a little heavy on the errors. However, even if students believe me, they don’t like coming to terms with this truth.

And why should they? None of us enjoy failing. While this is particularly true in the workplace, fear of failure is also heightened online, where we post our successes and hide our flaws. Social media can be a powerful sharing tool; however, all we can really share is a small part of our true experience. And if the partial reality reflected in social media is often deceptively rosy, so, too, is the reality portrayed at most professional conferences. At library conferences, our best and brightest discuss their shiniest successes. While this kind of event can be inspiring, it can also be demoralizing. Often we listen to stories of success that seem too far out of reach or aren’t replicable at our institutions. Presenters often don’t mention the many failures along the way, or if they do these failures are seen as trivial obstacles, barely worth mentioning.

That’s why I’m excited to attend Strikethrough, ULA’s failure workshop. If we expect our students to embrace failure, we must do the same. We need to allow (encourage?) failure in the workplace. Failure can teach us as much as – if not more than – tales of success. I believe by demystifying failure within librarianship we can encourage innovation and enjoy more success.

Never Waste a Good Failure

StrikethroughHeader-1By: Peter Bromberg, Associate Director for Public Services, Salt Lake County Library.

“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.” -Louisa May Alcott

Over the past decade I have observed a continual shift in how many in the business world approach the idea of failure. It has been a shift from viewing failure as something to avoid, to viewing failure as a necessary and valuable step in the process of innovation, organizational learning, and continual improvement.  Government and non-profit sectors seem to be increasingly open to this understanding of the value of failure — an understanding that scientists and design-thinkers have long appreciated.

It is not that failures or mistakes are, in and of themselves, good things.  It is useful to distinguish between good failures and bad failures.  A “bad” failure is generally one that could have been avoided or mitigated with a bit of thought or planning.  Hallmarks of bad failures might include:

  • taking on too much — unrealistic workload for yourself or others
  • having too short a timeline
  • having the wrong people involved, or having a lack of input from key stakeholders or others with needed information, skills, resources
  • not connecting action to a deeper set of values or goals

The most significant hallmark of a bad failure is that the failure is not openly discussed or analyzed.  Any failure can become valuable if there is a debrief around 1) the goal, 2) the actions taken, 3) the rationale for the actions,4)  the results, and 5) the lessons learned.  In the end, it is the unexamined mistake — the mistake we refuse to learn from — that truly warrants the label FAILURE.

mia hamm quote
Image Courtesy of Flickr User: — CC BY-ND 2.0

“Good” failures, on the other hand, are those that result from intentional actions, aligned towards clear goals, based on our best thinking and knowledge, and undertaken in a spirit of openness and learning.  Indeed, it is impossible for us to learn, grow, or innovate if we never take risks. Fear of failure, aversion to risk, or an organizational culture that punishes failure implicitly or explicitly, may, in the end, result in the ultimate failure — the failure to adapt to our rapidly changing world.

If you’re interested in further exploring the ideas of “good” failure, and the increasing need for successful 21st century organizations to “fail forward”, register now for, Strikethrough,  the Utah Library Association “Failure” Workshop.

The Schedule:

  • Thursday, February 18, 2016, OPTIONAL reception for keynote speakers from 7:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m. at the City Library.
  • Friday, February 19, 2016, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. FAILURE WORKSHOPS at the City Library.
  • Saturday, February 20, 2016, OPTIONAL Unconference at the City Library. (We will be workshopping and discussing ideas and situations involving failure), 9:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.

The “F” Word


By: Erin Wimmer, Teaching & Learning Librarian for Eccles Health and Sciences Library

Most of us were cautioned against using the “f” word when we were growing up. Some of us may still feel squeamish about it in adulthood. And it’s almost never advised in professional settings.

But why? It is part of our lexicon. Part of who we are and how we get things done. It’s the 21st Century and I’m advocating that we reconsider the “f” word.

I am, of course, talking about failure. What did you think?!

No one likes to fail. It is rough when something you try, something you poured valuable time, money and effort into, does not work out the way you anticipated. But perhaps that is exactly where the problem lies.

When a new product, project or service produces the result we hoped for, there is no incentive to review what contributed to the achievement. No need to analyze the road to success, to see if anything could be improved moving forward. Failure, however, requires this reflection and often leads to a better, stronger, even more sustainable outcome than we could have anticipated!

This is why I am attending Strikethough. To understand that everyone fails. To learn how to fail productively. To develop a culture of exploration and inquiry in libraries that allows us to try things that just may not work. To leverage failure to work for me.

Rather than fearing failure, let us embrace it. Let us learn from our setbacks, reflect on our process, and always be willing to try, try again. Let us learn the “f” word, live the “f” word, and, eventually, come to love it.

Learn more about Strikethrough and register for the workshop!


 I love words. Merriam and Webster were some of my earliest friends. Once I could create a sentence on paper, my mother gave me my own dictionary and thesaurus. I began writing stories and journaling. I looked up word after word to describe experiences and people. I discovered new words and loved using them in a way that truly captured a moment.

I’m sure you can imagine my dismay when I discovered my word expert friends were wrong about a word like failure! Their definition is:

  • A lack of success
  • A falling short
  • One who has failed

This hardly seems correct, does it? I spent much of my life using the word “failure” as they defined it. A hard line of performance or non-performance – and even worse – used to describe people. Through even a little bit of life experience, I believe many people would agree, a new definition is in order.

I’m attending Strikethrough to redefine failure for myself. Language is powerful. So, it will take a conscious effort to realign my instincts with a positive connotation. I look forward to designing failure into the culture in my library and my home. I look forward to redefining failure in a way that doesn’t describe defeat – but as an intentional and necessary piece of success.

Strikethrough: Utah Library Association Failure Workshop

By: Jami Carter, Director of the Tooele City Library and President-Elect of the Utah Library Association


With All Due Respect, I Fail And So Do You

StrikethroughHeader-1By: Dustin Fife, Outreach and Patron Services Librarian for Utah Valley University Library and Utah Library Association President

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” – Robert F. Kennedy

February 19, 2016 will be all about failure, and that is a good thing. We are going to talk about failure, we are going to look inwards and outwards, and we are going to work on individually and institutionally accepting risk as part of the process. Over the next few weeks, several of the organizers of Strikethrough will be sharing their thoughts about failure and why you should attend this upcoming ULA workshop. Strikethrough will feature Maureen Sullivan as the keynote speaker, along with many other compelling voices to help everyone evaluate the way they incorporate failure and risk into their lives and institutions. You can learn more about the workshop and register here.

There are many reasons that this topic is important to me and many reasons I want you to attend the workshop. But let’s start at the beginning, something I think everyone can understand, personal insecurity!

I’m helping organize the event. We’ve all set a date before, planned every last detail, prepared all that we can, and still woken in the middle of the night afraid that no one will attend an upcoming event. Usually this is not life or death, but regardless, you still want people to attend because by trying something you have exposed yourself. You have made yourself vulnerable. I have personally invested in this project. ULA and The City Library are spending money, bringing in speakers, and using many volunteer hours to make this happen. It is always scary to plan an event. I am always scared that no one is going to show up, whether it is for storytime or a lecture.

Earlier this year, with my amazing friends and colleagues Jessica Breiman and Rebekah Cummings, I helped organize a Wikipedia-edit-a-thon. We put a significant amount of energy into this event, and sadly, very few people came. You know why no one came? Because I forgot to check an events calendar. The edit-a-thon coincided with a nationally-televised football game. There was no parking, the campus was basically shutdown, and no one wanted to stick around to learn about Wikipedia. Huge oversight on my part. But that is how it goes when you are planning events, you cannot catch everything, but you should definitely check relevant events calendars.

More importantly though, this is truly an important topic. I love the quote at the beginning of this article. If you do nothing, it is unlikely that something good will happen. Some people believe that if you do nothing, nothing bad can happen either, but that just is not true. No matter what you do personally or institutionally, life moves on. Talking about failure is not an exercise in commiseration, but an opportunity to shape movement. As individuals and libraries, we have to move forward. Sometimes we move two steps forward and ten steps backwards, but that effort of will, of risk, of making ourselves vulnerable is important. That is when we learn the most. That is when we grow the most. C.S. Lewis says it well, “Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.”

I care about libraries and library employees. If you know me, you know I love libraries. I love the principles of librarianship, I love the traditional goals of librarianship, and I love the many different ways we have attempted to engender those principles and accomplish those goals. Libraries are important. Library employees serve an essential societal role. This is  important to me because there is so much more that libraries can do. It will take leadership from the top and bottom to keep libraries moving forward, and this is one of the most important conversations for making sure we are always on the move. The joy is in the journey.

Come to Strikethrough, join this important conversation, which I’m sure many of you are already having, and take it back to your libraries and lives.

“When you take risks you learn that there will be times when you succeed and there will be times when you fail, and both are equally important.” – Ellen DeGeneres

For many other great quotes about failure look here.