What did you fail at in 2017? Reflections on failure, entrepreneurship, and empowerment.

The close of the year is traditionally a time for reflection and resolutions.  On the last day of 2017, Artistri Sud founder and director, Jennifer Lonergan, looks back at the last year and shares some of her reflections from the front lines of the organization’s empowering entrepreneurship program for women artisans.  

Sara Blakely, queen of the Spandex empire, once told an interviewer that at the family dinner table, her father would ask her and her brother daily, “What did you fail at today?”  This made a big impression on me. I thought it was brilliant—both from a parenting perspective but also generally, as an approach to living.   Failing means taking on something new or different, something that you are not 100% confident you can pull off—what more full, inspiring and exciting way could there be to live life? 

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Master Trainer Fred Schick and Executive Director Jennifer Lonergan pause for a photo while discussing the next activity.

Implicit in Artistri Sud’s entrepreneurship training is the importance of failure—the need to take risks and learn from failure, and to embrace the process.  This may seem like a counter-intuitive thing to teach people.  But fear of failure is something that holds all of us back; and embracing the opportunity of the lessons taught by failure is critical to success—partly because of the learning, and partly because of the buoyant hardiness inherent in the approach.  If we accept that failure is the path to growth and resilience instead of fear and suffering, how much more empowered would we all be?  How many more risks would we take?  How much more successful at the game of life could we be?

 

As much as we teach this and embody it when we’re in the field delivering our programs, as an organization Artistri Sud is not always walking the talk.  That’s probably because I – founder and director of Artistri Sud – am concerned about what donors will think about our ability to have a positive impact if they hear about all the mistakes we make along the way.  Personally, I’m very comfortable about screwing up in the field—we’re not surgeons, after all—there are no casualties if a learning activity doesn’t quite go according to plan.  But being transparent about it makes me nervous.  What will people think if they find out we made a mistake?

 

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Fred tries out a new ‘neurobic’.

We all need to get more comfortable with making mistakes. Sometimes in a program, we try things that don’t work as well as we’d hoped.  The consequences are a few puzzled looks, the energy required to figure out a solution, the time we have to carve out of something else so we can pivot and get us back on track.  The training team debriefs morning, noon and night, literally, and whenever we introduce a new lesson or activity, we’re constantly reconfiguring and course-correcting as we gauge how well participants are grasping the content and making the connection between it and their own businesses.  Trying new things carries with it some risk, but the payoff when it goes well is that the women understand something new—which is always a beautiful moment—because it’s coupled with the happy realization that they can understand something new. 

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Preparing with the trainees.

Our trainees are understandably apprehensive with this approach.  They are artisans who have been identified as having strong leadership qualities and are being trained to be future trainers.  As novices, they are concerned about their credibility.  “How can I go up and teach these women about costing and accounting?” asks Silvia at lunch, tearfully wiping her eyes with a napkin.  She’s stressed about her afternoon teaching assignment: “Some of them have been at this longer than me.  What if they ask me something I don’t know?”  Not knowing something is not a big deal, we tell her–no one can know everything.  In a room full of experienced adults, there’s bound to be someone who knows the answer if you don’t—call on the group for an answer.  As her peers in the train-the-trainer program launch into a pep talk,  the head trainer leans over to me and quietly proposes removing her second teaching assignment that afternoon, to take some of the pressure off.   We quickly agree that’s a bad idea—nothing says “we don’t think you can do this” like reducing their responsibilities at the last minute.  But we’re also concerned, because we know that it’s one thing not to know an answer, and quite another to panic about not knowing an answer.  The learning process is an exchange of trust and confidence between learner and teacher, and it’s hard work to win those back if they’re lost.    The trainer and I cross our fingers and silently hope our worried trainee doesn’t choke. 

 

 

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Silvia listens to a participant’s question.

Later, in the classroom, her face contorts into a deer-in-the-headlights expression as her worst fear comes true–someone asks about accounting for depreciation of assets.  Silvia has never even heard of depreciation, much less how to account for it in a ledger.   The woman herself explains her current bookkeeping practice, but it’s clear that Silvia is not in any position to validate.  “Thank you,” she says smiling stiffly, “for teaching me something new.”  The training team stifles a laugh at her forced gratitude, but as we scan the room for reactions, we also breathe a sigh of relief.  She has managed to pull off an important element of teaching-as-performance-art: Never let ‘em see you sweat.  Next time, we note to ourselves, we won’t assign the program assisting duties to the trainee who’s got a challenging chunk of teaching on the same day.   Failure is a delicate balance—you want just enough to learn, and no so much that you can’t get up off the ground again.

We fail at a lot of things at Artistri Sud.  And like most organizations, companies, and people, we don’t widely share news of our mistakes. In 2018, I’m committed to having Artistri Sud embrace a growth mindset in all areas of our work.   In that spirit, stay tuned to read more about some of the key learnings of the past year at Artistri Sud, “The Top 5 fails of Artistri Sud,” coming soon.



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