RWDevCon 2016 Inspiration Talk – Embracing Failure by Janie Clayton

Learning from our failures is a great way to improve ourselves. In this talk Janie urges you to be willing to embrace failure and use it to help you grow. By Janie Larson.

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Note from Ray: At our recent RWDevCon tutorial conference, in addition to hands-on tutorials, we also had a number of “inspiration talks” – non-technical talks with the goal of giving you a new idea, some battle-won advice, and leaving you excited and energized.

We recorded these talks so that you can enjoy them, even if you didn’t get to attend the conference. Here’s our next talk – Embracing Failure by Janie Clayton – I hope you enjoy!


Hi, everybody. I am Janie Clayton and I’m going to talk about something that a lot of us really don’t like to think about. I’m going to talk about how to embrace failure.

Back when I was a little kid, I started playing the piano and I was really good at it immediately. I was the best person in my class of like 60 people and my town of 2000 people. I could play anything I wanted without having to practice too much.

So I thought that I was like a total prodigy genius person. I thought that when I grew up I was going to be a concert pianist and I was going to go to Juilliard and perform in front of all of these giant multitudes of people. This was what I was going to do with my life.


Well, then something unfortunate happened. I went to a different school where I met other people who’d actually been playing the piano longer than I had and who were a lot better than I was. I would talk and I’m like, “Holy crap. You guys are amazing.” They were like, “No, no, no. We’re not. We’re actually not all that great.”

I was really disappointed because I thought that this was something that I was going to do with my life. Finding out that I wasn’t the greatest piano player in the world, that this wasn’t what I was going to do, I got really discouraged and I gave up on it because I’d never practiced before and I never had to practice. I didn’t have any discipline to go in and actually do things to make myself better.

I just assumed that you’re either born good at something, or you weren’t good at it immediately and it just wasn’t something that you were supposed to be doing.

The Influence of Childhood and School

I’ve noticed over the last couple of years, I’ve been really thinking about how we go about what we do with our lives. When you’re a kid and later in high school, you’re trying to figure out who you are. When you’re a kid you think you’re going to be an astronaut or you think you’re going to be president of the United States.


You have all of these ideas about what you’re going to do and we have all of these high stakes things where you have to decide immediately when you’re a little kid about what you’re going to do so that you can take all the right classes in high school and later go on to college.

Then you get into high school and you don’t really have time to go and pick up any of these cool, neat hobbies that you have. You have to specialize in what it is that you’re going to do. There’s a lot of pressure on you, when you’re a high school student, to go and actually continue to make straight A’s. If you don’t get an A, if you get a B on a test, then your GPA goes down. Then you can’t get into Harvard and everything is ruined.


This is pressure that we’re putting on these poor 16 year-old kids to tell them that they can’t make any mistakes because if they make one mistake, their entire future is completely screwed. It’s really hard to get yourself out of that mindset even after you get out of high school.

Fear of Failure Continues into Adulthood

We as a society are terrified of failure. We have this idea that everything that we do has to lead to something else. Like I said:

  • If you don’t get into the right college, you can’t get the right job.
  • If you don’t do all the right things, then bad stuff will happen to you.
  • You have to go out and you have to get married because that’s what you’re supposed to do.
  • Then you’re supposed to have kids.
  • Then you’re supposed to have a job.

You figure out when you’re like 40 that you have this life that you have to keep living, that you didn’t really want because you were so afraid of acknowledging that you didn’t like something. You weren’t willing to go in and make changes when it was possible for you to actually do so.

This leads to a thing that we see in the programming community, where everybody is terrified of ever acknowledging that they don’t know something.

This leads to a lot of really bad, toxic mindsets and behaviors because everybody’s completely absorbed with trying to maintain this façade that we’re all perfect, that we don’t make any mistakes, that we don’t have failures. Nobody is willing to ask for help; everybody has to pretend like everything that they do is perfect. You get people threatening to kill each over on Stack Overflow because they’re putting their semicolons on the wrong lines.

This is just a really bad way of going about living, so I just wanted to talk a little bit about my own experiences of failing upwards through life over the last 20 years or so. I want to give people an idea about how we can break out of this cycle and embrace failure so that we can learn and be more happy and productive people.

Confidence Isn’t Proportional to Competence

One of the first things I want to talk about is the cycle of learning. Back when I was trying to play the piano and I figured out that I wasn’t actually all that good at it, I quit on it because it was something that I didn’t think I could better at by training.

The Viking Code School blog had this great thing about why programming is hard and it was talking about this cycle of coding competence versus confidence.




I’m going to talk about my own experiences with programming, even though this is applicable to basically anything that you’d want to be doing.

When you first start out, you have this nice hand-holding honeymoon stage. When I learned programming, I learned on Codecademy, where you’d go and you would for-loop. Then you get a nice little, “Hey, you did a great job! Here’s a cookie!”

You feel really good and awesome. It’s cool, because you went and you did something successful and everything was broken down into nice happy, little competent tasks that you could do modularly and you feel really good.


Then you get done with that and then you wind up on the Cliffs of Confusion. You get done with programming and you go and find your first job or you find other people. Then all of a sudden, you hear all of this stuff that nobody talked about when you were learning how to program because it was such an overwhelming thing that there wasn’t any time to go over it.

You go to a conference and you hear people talk about the Gang of Four and you’re like, “What’s the Gang of Four?” Or people telling you that you need to do things on GitHub or contribute to open source and you’re asking, “How do you contribute to open source?” and then they give you a look like, “Oh, you’re one of those people.”


You’re too afraid to ask about it ever again and then everybody thinks poorly of you. So you’re spending all of this time bouncing around, trying to figure out all of these institutional knowledge that it seems like everybody else has that you didn’t have.

It gets very confusing and then eventually that leads to the Desert of Despair. You feel like you’re never going to catch up. That everybody knows all of this stuff. They were born with this knowledge. It wasn’t that they learned it over a course of time. You feel like you’re a failure and there’s nothing you can do. You get on your first project and you don’t have all of these nice little modular tasks like you did on Codecademy.

You have to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re talking to a client that doesn’t know what they want to be doing. It leads to this really powerful pit of despair where you just feel like you’re a failure and you don’t think you’re going to be able to do anything. You feel like you have to keep working harder and harder and harder to keep up.


Then everybody else around you is also trying to work harder and harder and harder to keep up. It leads to this horrible endless cycle of everybody trying to pretend like we all know what we’re doing when we really don’t.

This is the cycle we’re in right now and we don’t have to live this way. It’s important to be able to realize that you can fail at something and that your world is not going to end. If you do one thing wrong, it isn’t going to lead to you having your entire life be destroyed. You’re not going to lose everything.