As a futurist I spend much of my time tracking failure. Why failure? Because they are the unforgiving anchors around which society changes directions.
In the U.S. we are now witnessing a record number of failures taking place. Just look around. Failed businesses, failed systems, failed jobs, and failed marriages.
Some failures are easily predicted, where a known problem looms larger and larger until a solution is found. Most, however, are not so easy. In many respects, failures are nature’s own system for checks and balances.
Failures attract attention. Much like a car accident causing a gawker’s block along the highway, failure attracts onlookers, some with offers to help, others moving quickly to avoid being painted with the same failure brush.
So what causes failure? Turns out that failure is just one relentless driver being perpetuated by a series of other relentless drivers. As we lift up the hood on this eight cylinder engine, here is what’s really going on.
To be sure, there are many forces driving the world around us, and each one of these drivers is like a hand grenade generating a blast zone of forces pushing in multiple directions. However, these particular forces concentrate an unusual amount of energy in the directions I’ve indicated here to keep this cycle in motion.
- Mortality drives urgency
- Urgency drives purpose
- Purpose drives our quest for knowledge
- Our quest for knowledge drives technology
- Technology drives complexity
- Complexity drives failure
- Failure drives conflict
- Conflict drives mortality
As we begin to study these linkages, we are able to uncover fascinating relationships which help enormously in explaining the nature of humanity and the world we live in.
1.) Mortality Drives Urgency – The fact that we will someday die gives us only a short runway of time to get things done. The clock is ticking. We either get things done today or we lose a significant piece of the time we have left before we die. Even though people are living longer today than 100 years ago and we have a slightly longer runway, the urgency we feel is still a prevalent force in everything we do.
While it’s true that competition and our need for status also drive urgency, the constant trickle of sands falling through the hourglass leaves us feeling like our own lives are slipping through our fingers. The sound of our own mortality is a sound few can avoid listening to.
Counter to what some believe, living forever may indeed be counter-productive. People who live with no end in sight may well lose their motivation for “doing anything important today.”
2.) Urgency Drives Purpose – How many times have you heard someone ask, “Why am I doing this?”
It’s a very common concern because most of us simply despise doing anything dubbed “meaningless.”
Baby-boomers are getting older. As this massive bulge in the population moves into their retirement years, many are feeling the regrets of not having lived up to their own expectations, and in doing so, are searching for higher meaning. In what Forbes Magazine publisher Rich Karlgaard describes as the “Age of Meaning,” the former hippie generation is now searching for a higher calling, and they want it now.
3.) Purpose Drives our Quest for Knowledge – To find meaning and purpose, we need more knowledge.
In today’s world, information is infinite, but knowledge is finite. According to a 2010 report by the Global Information Industry Center, the hours we spend consuming information has grown 2.6 percent per year from 1980 to 2008 to an average of nearly 12 hours per day.
At the same time, our ability to sort through the growing storehouses of information and find those shimmering glints of needles-in-the-haystack information is a relentless quest. It is a quest we cannot do alone, and so we turn to technology.
4.) Our Quest for Knowledge Drives Technology – Human frailties and our own physical limitations drives us to find technical solutions.
How can we think faster, see things outside of the range of normal human vision, hear things on the other side of the world, or process information that baffles the normal mind?
Virtually every invention known to mankind is an extension of human senses or human capabilities.
The more information we consume, the greater our need for technology, and that’s where things start getting complicated.
5.) Technology Drives Complexity – Technology drives many things, but when it comes to complexity, technology acts as the great enabler.
Rather than managing 100 accounts on paper, we can now manage 1,000 accounts with a computer. Rather than spending 10 hours sorting through 20,000 books in a library, we spend 10 minutes sorting through 2 million books online.
Technology extends our reach, but it also extends our ability to devise complex systems for managing it, and complicated solutions to our problems.
Complexity itself is neither good nor bad, but it increases fragility and too much complexity pushes us beyond our ability to manage it. And that’s where things begin to fail.
6.) Complexity Drives Failure – The more complicated something is, the more likely it is to fail.
Yes, in abstract terms, complexity adds function. And some measure of complexity is both necessary and beneficial.
However, according to complexity management firm Ontonix, 80% of companies that fail experience at least one year of rapidly increasing complexity.
Complexity tends to function like a self-perpetuating organism. Complex systems tend to expand until they reach a breaking point, and that is where the conflict begins.
7.) Failure Drives Conflict – Yes, failure causes many things, but failure is very emotional, and emotional intensity leads to conflict.
Our first reaction is that failure is bad and conflict resulting from failure is even worse. Yet at the same time, failure is a time of renewal, a new branch growing where an old branch just died.
Conflict arises from our resistance to failure, and in many case we need to resist because failures are not inevitable. We only appreciate that which we struggle to achieve, and virtually every conflict clears our mind about the importance of what we are struggling for.
8.) Conflict Drives Mortality – Every conflict gives us another look into the frailties of being human.
Conflicts are riddled with confusion and doubt, second-guessing and regret. They are the friction from where the rubber-meets-the-road on this turning wheel.
But most conflicts come from within. As famed country singer Garth Brooks says, “The greatest conflicts are not between two people but between one person and himself.”
In the end, we ask what we were fighting for, and that, in turn, drives our own feeling of mortality.
So What Can We Conclude?
It was several weeks ago when I first sketched this out, trying to decide if it was indeed meaningful, and whether this kind of insight could be helpful.
In the back of my mind I kept asking, “Is this cycle inevitable” and “Can it be stopped?” Perhaps, more importantly, “Should it be stopped?”
We each have many wheels to contend with. Our family wheel overlaps our business wheel, and those overlap our social and side-projects wheels.
With global databases of information skyrocketing and technology improving access to it, the wheel is turning at a faster and faster pace.
Every imbalance in the wheel causes a ripple effect throughout the rest of the wheel.
Are we better off trying to eliminate conflict and failure, or trying to optimize it? With the new mantra being “fail fast and fail often,” we have begun to accept the inevitability.
Is purpose more important than knowledge, or does strengthening one driver simply create an imbalance that strengthens the other?
Is our quest for knowledge making us smarter, of just more confused?
As you can see, I have far more questions than answers, so I’d like to hear your thoughts. If possible, please take a few moments to write down some of the ideas that formed in your head as you read through this.
I look forward to hearing your insights.
Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything