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.

  1. Mortality drives urgency
  2. Urgency drives purpose
  3. Purpose drives our quest for knowledge
  4. Our quest for knowledge drives technology
  5. Technology drives complexity
  6. Complexity drives failure
  7. Failure drives conflict
  8. 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.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything


12 Responses to “The Urgency of Purpose and the Forward Movement of Failure”

Comments List

  1. <a href='http://www.market-engineering.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Gary Lundquist</a>

    Tom, Great list. Links are a huge stretch. For instance, a twenty year old cant even spell mortality. Us old folks still want to make an impact. Got to cut this chat. I'm on my third entrepreneuring. So much to do.
  2. <a href='http://www.rockyflatsgear.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Jeff Buske</a>

    Tom, You nailed many symptoms but missed the cause. PRIVATE CENTRAL BANKS and the issuance of money at interest. As the interest is not created the debt can NEVER be paid back. We are forced to compete, cheat, steal and commit fraud to collect scraps of paper to pay back a numerical impossibility. It creates a worldwide schizophrenia destroying the fabric of humanity leaving a wake of broken marriages, banks, business etc... To prop up the funny money a blizzard of conflicting regulations has been erected reducing competition, holding back human progress, generating fines/fees, while filling the jails with non violent people. Most are victim-less just causes more chaos in society. Jefferson, Franklin, Linclon, JFK and many others warned us about this years ago. Nationalize the FED and restore honest money, would be a start. Jeff
  3. Michael Cushman

    Hi Tom Well, you might have just sketched it out, but I know you have noodled on this topic for years. I think the inter-system fragility caused by hyper-complexity is a new cause of failure, brought on by the information age. It's under appreciated: you won't find it in an economic textbook. The old reasons for failure still exist: the inability to defend, over-consumption of a limited resource, and the limited capacity to adapt to change. Now add another to the mix, hyper-complexity. Regarding complexity, Over a decade ago, Cisco and 3Com completed in the same markets with the same strategy, rapid global M&As. 3Com was bigger, initially, and both were loved by Wall Street, until the wheels came off 3Com. Cisco on the other hand, skyrocketed for many years afterward. What was the difference? Complexity. While Cisco was genius at integrating each new acquisition, 3Com did almost no integration. They had 3 to 6 accounting systems, 3 to 6 resource management systems, and get this, over 200 PC vendors! Can you imaging an internal IT service department trying to maintain, repair and upgrade PCs from 200 different vendors around the world? All the different parts, configurations, unique BIOSs and operating systems. What a mess! Inter-systems complexity killed profits, slowed their ability to adapt, and took years to spin off, kill off, and consolidate back to a working company. I would say that at least 50% of my big consulting clients had internal complexity issues, either caused by M&As,too many product lines, too many vendors, or three-dimensional matrix management structures (industry, geography, product or service line). You ask great questions, BTW. My only advice for leaders is to find ways to measure complexity and take actions to reconfigure. More and more, these systems are becoming global, like banking, and this will force more global control systems and international regulation, but that will only slow it down or speed up recoveries after crashes. Or maybe...Aliens will invade, we won't be able to defend, and they will solve the problem for us. :-)
  4. <a href='http://www.starkbusinessadvantage.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Chris Stark</a>

    Hey Michael, You have presented a great model and description. My guess is that you must see this progression as iterative. That has been my experience. By the way, you only lightly connect this process with true success, although you do allude to failure being the great teacher. By extension, those who learn more, see more, and in turn, can achieve more. Of course this success is only available to those resilient enough to keep going. As I have personally experienced and witnessed in others, "failing faster and failing more often does," drive higher levels of awareness and wisdom. Ultimately, this often leads to achievement and advantage in ways both expected and unexpected. Of course, this simply erects a higher platform to restart the process. This excites some, but frustrates the rest. For those who realize that on earth, 'perfect' is just a word, staying motivated and mobilized is a definition of success in itself. In fact, by embracing this process, one comes to see failure primarily as an opportunity to grow and self-actualize. T.S. Elliot's nicely sums it up by writing, "We must not cease from exploration. And at the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and know the place for the first." My guess is that Elliott briefly "stopped to smell the roses," and then continued exploring until he stopped breathing.
  5. Dena Schlutz

    I am not sure that I agree that technology drives complexity. I see it as technology makes things simple. Failure can be caused by things being too simple as well as things being too complex. It's human nature to be search for new ways and learn by trial and error. I'm not sure this sketch works for me...
  6. Kennita Watson

    "Conflict drives mortality" -- the first thing I think of when I see that is people killing each other, especially in war. Often rather than driving feelings of mortality, conflict is driven by feelings of immortality -- i.e., religion. Iam tempted to see if there are other places where the wheel is driven backwards, but another form of urgency has me -- I'm late for a meeting.
  7. <a href='http://www.21stcentech.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Len Rosen</a>

    "Is our quest for knowledge making us smarter or just more confused?" A great question. I think the answer is knowledge doesn't make us smarter. Knowledge gives us the opportunity to make smart choices, to solve what may seem to be intractable. Take for instance our knowledge of climate science. We have a deluge of data that points with a high degree of certainty that there is a correlation between greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric warming. We have all this knowledge but what are we doing with it? Apparently not much even with the evidence before our eyes.
  8. Mick Steele

    Hi Tom, I believe there are three 'camps' regarding the the level of urgency driven by the expectations of mortality. There is the 'expectation' of 80 years or so, divided into segments that concludes in retirement etc.,the camp that believes that there is no certainty and it could all end tomorrow and the religious amongst us who see this as an examination to see if you can make the grade to immortality.This leads to different levels of urgency and an imbalance in the world. With medieval levels of existence in many parts of the world with medieval religions dominating, the brief notion of mortality is overshadowed by the driver 'the next life is better'style of principles. If the majority of the planet fully believe that this is a dress rehearsal, then the 'urgency' of technological change is slowed by this fact. The resources required to develop the whole world is greater than the resources available. The inbalance caused by cultures is a grave necessity to allow the developed nations to drive technology forward with the limited resources available, often at the expense of the others. Previous posts on this subject mention climate change and other issues. These of course are 'side effects' of what is mankinds era, the Anthropocene. If man-induced climate warming had been understood by the Victorians, the industrial revolution may have been restricted, and the benefits of that revolution would not have allowed the speed of development that has occurred up to today. With the emerging technologies that will require vast amounts of carbon as the 'super material' of the future (graphene etc.) then the sequestration of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere will be the main source of that material. I have no doubts that the 'urgency' derived from necessity will mean that mankind will 'find a way' as always to ensure the future of mankind. To be a true futurist, you have to step out of the 'mortal time' laden approach to the future. The cyclic nature of our mortal bodies, night, day and seasons does create a bias in the opinions of many. The world is far greater than this and works on a far greater span. This carbon 'hiccup' will be smoothed out in the course of deep time.To come back round to the circle you have described, I believe that is only true for a portion of the people on this planet. The first arrow on the 'wheel' would of course require the acceptance of mortality. Great article again. Thank you
  9. Lisa Martinez

    Thomas, Great perspective. If I might offer a concept for number 2. Wisdom as a Service I am not frightened by failure, although I try not to be associated with the cause. I'm going to do some synthesis with your wheel and WICKED Problems or the mess left by wicked problems. Again, great article. Lisa
  10. <a href='http://N/a' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Raj Patel</a>

    Hi, I find myself wanting to know more about stuff that impacts my life personally and professionally. Maybe this comes from working in several corporate environments in London (UK) over my working life where, over time we are programmed to do more with less, add value and save on costs. I'm overall a positive person so I don't mind finding things out for myself and in the case of failure I like to learn from mistakes. There have been some incredible failures in humanity and hope that those empowered to make positive change do so with the benefit of hindsight of those failures.
  11. Vasant Moharir

    Yes, though everyone worships success, it is the failure from which individuals and nations can learn a lot. The story of success is often a unique situation, failure is more common and representative of the majority. The quesion is how one can institutionalize the process of learning from failure in major organizations of the society? Often bosses do not want to hear about failure. In the past messengers bringing the bad news from the front were executed? The recent failure of democratic decision-making processes in some North American and European continent in the context of dealing with threats to world peace in some countries in the middle east, have again highlighted this issue. But who will tell the King that he is naked? Kings are often surrounded by those who tell the king what he/she wants to hear. Vasant Moharir
  12. Chthonic

    The root of complexity is time and growth. As our society becomes larger, the necessity for complexity becomes ever greater to accomodate it. We have not yet hit the point where we are "too complex" in my view, although we are certainly nearing that point in the next 20,30 or 40 years. You have left something out in your wheel though, and that is reproduction. Even though the world becomes increasing complex and thus prone to breakdown; it also has the ability to generate many "spin-off" societies. smaller, less complex places where people get back to the basics of living and start the process of building a civilization over again.

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