The most valuable gift you can give your employees

“The most valuable gift you can give your employees is permission to fail.”

When my good friend Joshua Blankenship said that to me during my last term at university I didn’t fully understand what he meant, and to be honest, it didn’t settle well in my brain at first hearing.

I think part of my problem was that our society views failure primarily as a negative concept. Think about it – if you reflect on your education from kindergarten to university, most students have been taught through experience that the worst thing you could do as a student is fail. The famous red “F” with a circle around it at the top of your paper. I don’t think anyone is denying that earning high marks is generally a good thing and poor performance bears negative consequences, but what if our society’s view of failure is wrong? What if the red “F” is actually a healthy thing sometimes?

When Brains on Fire threw me a life preserver and hoisted me on to their pirate ship I was given the privilege of being research-crew hand to Dr. Justine Foo. I quickly learned that when you step onto their deck there is no time wasted: before the wet of the ocean had left my clothes I found ropes in my hand and hardworking pirates at my shoulders (several of whom sported appropriately-inked buccaneer tattoos). Within the first few weeks Justine asked me to perform research and write a report for a national client. Though capable, I was green (still am), and in the fear of failure I learned so well through education, I began to ask her questions every 10 minutes about the project and what I should do (remember that Justine?). After a few interruptions, she sat me down and gave me some of the best advice I have ever received: “Eric, we didn’t hire you so that you would ask me a thousand questions and be unsure about what you are doing. We hired you to produce amazing work. And you are fully capable of doing that. So, if you have a legitimate question, ask me. If not, just produce amazing work. And if you get it wrong, I’ll show you where, why and how to fix it, and you’ll grow.”


The freedom to create my best work was born out of granted freedom to fail in my attempt. And it’s all over the place at Brains on Fire. The designers here create some of the most ridiculously awesome work around and I’m convinced it’s because they know they have the freedom to take daring risks with their art.

Freedom. Not cavalier freedom to do whatever we want, but freedom to give our clients the best (and most effective) work they have ever seen.

I have found that my greatest achievements are possible because my greatest failures are possible. So, you were right Joshua. I understand what you meant a lot better now.

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