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Embracing Failure As Personal Growth

Failure is scary! Even the idea of failing is scary. But making mistakes is the key to growth and strength. Once we accept that we all have failures, we can let go of living perfectly, and instead, embrace the present. In this talk, Kimberley will talk about why failures are super important, she'll share examples from both her own career and the biggest names in tech.

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I actually need to caveat this talk by saying that I'm actually a bit ill, and so if I mute myself and cough, that is why. But there was no way I was going to pull out of this talk today or yesterday. It's something I feel really passionate about.

If I give a talk about failure whilst a bit ill, I have to mute myself and cough, there is something ironic about that, so we are all failing here together! But yes, so I'm here today to talk to you about failure.

Failure: it is scary, isn't it? It is not something that people like talking about. Something that we often shy away. We don't like sharing our failures. We feel uncomfortable talking about it. It makes us vulnerable, which is something that we're not that good at feeling.

But we make mistakes and fail every single day, and so I'm here today to talk to you about failures, talk about my failure, while one of my biggest failures, I think, when I first join the tech industry, I want to normalise it, I want people to go away from this talk thinking that failing is okay.

And it is something that we all do, and it is absolutely crucial for your personal growth, and you will only get better by failing, and it pushes you, it proves that you're pushing yourself, proves that you're stepping out of that complete comfort blanket that we like. We like to be in. And so, I'm going to start.

I'm going to start by being vulnerable and share what I think is one of my first memories of failure when I first became a developer. So I studied at Bournemouth University, I got offered a job in London. I moved to London. It is quite a big step, moving to London, if anyone's done it. I moved by myself. I didn't really know that many people when I moved there.

I got offered this job at a really small tech agency. The only thing we did was coding. We didn't do any of the design. We were four people. I was the fourth person to join this really tiny agency. And I was about two months in and they trusted me to do this deployment, which, right or wrong, they trusted me, and so they handed me the documentation.

They ran me through it. They said, "We fully trust you, you can do this, good luck." And off I went. And I mean, you can probably see where this is going. I completely screwed up. I don't know what I did, but I took down the whole website, this production website, and I sat there and the worst things went through my head.

The brain can be the worst things sometimes. All these things that are going through my head of I'm going to get fired, I'm still on my probation, this is my first job, they're going to tell every other person in London never to hire me, I'm the worst, like, of course, this was going to happen. Like all of this stuff.

So I sat there for five minutes, and I thought, I've got to say something because the web spite is down. It's not something that I can pretend hasn't happened. And so I stood up, I — remember, there's only four people, I went up to my boss, and I said, "Sepas, I've screwed up this deployment. I've taken down a website. I don't know what I've done, but I really need your help." He went okay, let's go. We will figure it out.

And he said, "We — we kind of went back, and he said. He pulled up a chair next to me. He said, "Before I do anything ... he patted me on the back, and he said, "You've screwed up a deployment on a production website. You are now a real developer!" And my heart just leapt! You know, it was the best response I could have got from someone teaching me the things I needed to be a good developer. And we then sat down, and we fixed it together.

And you know, it taught me so many things, and that is the key to this failure. Why was this failure important? It was important for numerous things. The first being that from that failure, I gained experience. Which in that five-minute moment before I spoke to my boss, that wasn't going through my head.

In that five minutes, I was like this is the worst, I'm going to get that fired, but, actually, I gained experience from that, and I learned never to make that mistake again.

What we were also then able to do as a team was we were able to go and look at why and how I made that failure, and, actually, what we learned is that it is the failure of our team, because, actually, what we looked at was the documentation was terrible.

So we were then able to go away as a team and say let's ensure this doesn't happen again with someone else. This is going to be the first time someone will be making deployment. We are a small team, it's why I was trusted to make those bigger tasks happen. And I was then able to go away and change that documentation and I put in that documentation if you make this mistake, you can do this to rectify it.

It meant that people coming after me, and particularly deploying that website, never made that same mistake as me, because I had made the documentation better, so that is why going back to the previous slide, why this failure was important, (a) I gained experience deploying which is the most key thing when making mistakes and failures, but also our documentation — the documentation would never have changed if I hadn't made that mistake and we went away and changed it.

That is why that failure was so key to our team, and it has been nine years since I made that failure, at it is something that I often, I talk about quite a lot, because the key thing with failure is gaining experience.

And so I want to talk now about other people's failures, because I'm not going to sit here and just talk about my own! I wonder if anyone here knows who this person is? He is the person behind Disney. His name is Walt Disney. Now, this man had so many failures before we know Disney as what it is today.

Actually, I'm going to tell you them today because I'm here to normalise failure because I want people to see these people who have such great success that actually, their journeys aren't linear.

They're like rollercoasters, Walt Disney, who dropped out of school, there are other famous high school drop-outs which I found out doing research on this talk which I will talk about on the next slide.

His first company which was called Iwerks defective Disney Commercial Artist. They failed. They had absolutely no money and failed to attract artists. Their second company also failed and they had to file for bankruptcy. That's two companies that failed before Disney is what it is today.

Then the other big failure of his that I wanted to discuss is his first character he created before Mickey, before Mini was Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit. He lost all rights. He actually lost all rights to that character. And so he didn't have this — he didn't just come out — he dropped out of school, he didn't come out and create Disney and it is what it is today.

He didn't have this linear journey, and I think talking about these high-profile failures are so key to try to normalise it, and through research for this talk, here's a few others.

So Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah Winfrey, Madonna, Brad Pitt. There are probably so many others that these are just a few school drop-outs that I found doing this research for this talk.

Then actually really interestingly, I was on Twitter yesterday, and also saw this tweet. I thought this fits really perfectly with the talk I'm giving tomorrow. I screen shotted it and wanted to add it to this talk, which is about some of the failures of some huge stories that we know today. So Harry Potter got rejected 12 times. Carrie, 30 times, Dr Seuss 27, Lord of the Flies, 20, Dune, 23. If all of these people had given up on their first, the first time someone had said this script is no good, we would not have these huge stories today, and so I'm sharing all of these failures because I don't want you to be scared of failure.

It is so important for your growth. If all those people had accepted no straightaway, they wouldn't be where they are today, and, if you're not failing, you're not pushing yourself. I said I would talk about snowboarding, because I do call myself a snowboarder. I moved to the mountains for snowboarding. I now live in the middle of the French Alps in Chamonix. If you're here, drop me a message.

I talked about falling with snowboarding. This is a picture of me face down in a ton of snow and I'm pretty sure the quote I said when this picture was taken was, "I can't go on, please call patrol to get me off this mountain." I have had enough. I was falling over, deep off-piste. It's really hard. You push yourself to get back up again. The snow goes back up your arm. Takes all your energy to get back up again. I had just had enough. What I didn't do was give up. I did not give up just because I fell over and had this bad time this one time. I'm now able to ride that type of snow way better because I didn't give up.

I had some family come and stay with me over Christmas, and it's the first time a lot had ever come to the mountains, the first time they ever tried skiing and snowboarding, we had a mixed bag of people. And I was out on the mountain with my brother and nephew snowboarding for the first time, everyone else was skiing, and they kept falling over, which is naturally the thing you do when you're learning these new sports.

And I said to them, please don't be put off by this. You have to fall to get better. You have to learn where the edges are on your board. You have to fall to learn snowboarding. But look around you, and you will get better. That's the key thing.

Again, about failure, is that if I just had fallen over and then gone, do you know what? Actually, I'm not good at this, I'm not going to do it any more, I wouldn't be as good as I am today. You have to change that mindset to say, okay, it's okay if I fall over because I know I'm going to get better. And so I tried to reinforce the importance of failure in the charity that I run.

Thank you so much for briefly mentioning it before this talk, but I run a charity called CodeBar. We teach programming to minority group members in tech. Every single year, we run an unconference called Un-CodeBar and at that unconference, the first time we ever ran it, we did it eight years in a row now, I can't find a picture of me running it, but I did find a picture of Sam and Richard running it in the year I was not there.

I run something called a Failure Swap shop. The premise of this is that I did it at another Unconference whilst at university in Bournemouth called BarCamp. But the premise is that you share your failures, and so you start by saying, you know, "I'm Kim, and I'm a failure" and then the whole room claps. You share your failure.

The idea behind it is that every single person makes mistakes and it normalises how common it is particularly if you're in a room of people, in our case, 50% of the room would be junior developers, or people not even junior developers yet, people learning to code.

The other 50% of the room are more experienced developers. People who maybe are tech leads, CTOs. If you've got those people sharing failures, it really normalises it for the people coming into the tech industry because that's terrifying coming into any industry.

The last thing you want to do is make any mistake. If you're in a swap shop and you hear people sharing failures, you think they're making mistakes and they're 15 years into their career, but actually it's totally okay for me to make a mistake because I'm just starting my career. That is why I love running this failure swap shop.

This year that I wasn't able to run it, these two, Sam and Richard, kindly ran it for me, which I think was amazing. I think it's a testament to the swap shop and like I said the swap shop was not my idea. I had been to one before. People just really enjoyed being in a really safe space where they could share their failure and laugh about it.

So if you're a senior developer, or a tech lead, or you run a company, and you're listening to this, please be more transparent if you make a mistake. I think that's really, really important, because we really need to normalise that making mistakes are okay, and that you're a team. And going back to my failure, I fade, yes, but we learned it was a failure of my team, and a failure of the documentation in my team, and so really try to normalise these failures.

Another thing is that your failures to not define you. Failures happy every single day. Some are smaller, some are bigger, but think happen. Going back to any of those people previously in my talk, you know, Walt Disney, all of the other, Oprah Winfrey, all of these people, we don't think of them and go remember that failure from blah, blah, blah?

We remember them because of their successes, and the huge achievements that they have had, so whatever mistake or failure you make, it does not define you, it does not define the developer you are, or it does not define the career, if you're not a developer it does not define you as a person at all.

One podcast I absolutely love for normalising failures is one called How to Fail with Elizabeth day. She started this podcast after the breakdown of her marriage at the age of 38, like I'm such a failure, surely other people are feeling the same way about me, so I want to talk to people about their failures.

One of the things she said frequently in this podcast is that one of her biggest successes, which is this podcast, has come from one of her biggest failures, which is the end of her marriage. The premise of this podcast is she brings a guest on and they share three failures. Those failures have really varied. I've listened to I think pretty much all of the episodes.

And one of the ones that again really sticks out to me is one of the really I think may even have been the very first episode, with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the writer of Fleabag, we think of this amazing comedy. I really recommend it.

When you think of Fleabag, you don't know anything that has gone on prior to that. Fleabag is this amazing successful comedy show which won her a ton of awards. She went on to be a writer for James Bond, all of these amazing things. What we don't know is actually the script for Fleabag got rejected 12 times, and the feedback she got was no-one wanted to see, and I quote, "An unhinged woman", which is ludicrous if anyone has seen it.

For those who took a risk, at said let's make this into a one-woman act show which is what it was in national theatre, and then a two-series BBC show, none of that previous story matters now, and, again, if she had just accepted that first no, she would not be where she is today.

Another really amazing quote that I, that came from actually a more recent episode was with Tom Daley. He went to London 2012 games, Tom Daley he is Team GB Olympics diver, won world championships, and a gold medal, but he was one of the poster people for the London 2012 Olympics, and he said there was too much pressure on him.

He got bronze but felt he hadn't quite succeeded because he didn't get gold. What he did say, and there is this quote that really sticks out to me is, "You're not starting from scratch, you're starting from experience."

So even if you do, let's go back to my failure again, you know, I did screw up that website, but yes, I almost did start from zero, but, actually, I didn't, because I had gained experience in that area, and that is the key thing, and why this quote always really sticks out to me, and that you're not starting from scratch, you're gaining more experience with any mistake or failure that you make, which is why you can go back to two slides, the failure does not define you.

You're always gaining experience which is the absolute key, and that is why, you know, I called this talk "failure for personal growth", because you have to make those mistakes and those failures to grow, and, if you're not doing that, you're not growing, you're not becoming a better developer, making those mistakes in everywhere. So that is my talk on failure. Thank you so much, everyone, for listening. And thank you so much.