Samuel Becket and Our Culture of Perfectionism

imagesOkay. So we need to talk about Samuel Beckett. Yeah, you know, the tall, craggy guy, author of Waiting for Godot, the play where nothing happens, but everything does. But that’s not why we need to talk about Beckett. Mostly, you need to read Mark O’Connell’s article for Slate titled “The Stunning Success of Fail Better.” In it, O’Connell dissects Beckett’s now-famous quote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Apparently, it’s become the mantra of billionaire deal makers. O’Connell points out that those billionaires have made a bit of a mockery of Beckett’s quote, calling it “the battle cry for a startup culture in which failure has come to be fetishized, even valorized.”

If you’re wondering where leadership, and more particularly museum leadership is in this Beckett–O’Connell–fail again tangle, here’s the answer: Failure in the museum world, particularly in the history museum world isn’t in danger of being valorized. At all. Instead, we sometimes see the opposite: a culture of perfectionism. Among the 36 interviewees for Leadership Matters more than a few commented that in the history museum world there is a reluctance to fail. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Many history and heritage organizations are small and run on tight budgets. Failing at anything can be personally difficult, but also financially risky.

We believe a fundamental of good leadership involves being what we termed in-tune/in-touch. In-tune/in touch organizations make space for people. They support learning, skill, and knowledge acquisition for staff, volunteers and audiences. Not only does this deepen community engagement, it breeds trust among employees. Employees who trust are also employees who know they can fail. Why is failure such a big deal? Because if you know you can fail, you will experiment, you will think outside the box, you will take risks. In theory those are the employees you want. One of our interviewees sees perfectionism as endemic at today’s museums describing it as “the enemy of progress.” She suggests that too many museum and historical organization personnel are mired in process and fearful of action, and suggests working a program or an exhibit to death in the name of perfection sucks the life out of it. This suggests that leadership is less about control than creating an atmosphere where staff and volunteers alike feel comfortable to experiment. And of course, fail. Let us know what you think. No judgement of course.

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