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Failure is Cool

A few years ago I started to dabble in the collective housing and cooperative community scene, it’s something I’ve become really passionate about.

As such I talk about it, a lot.  When I speak to people about cooperative living, they often listen politely and then cite a failed situation—with a roommate or cumbersome decision-making process—as proof that the concept is wholly unviable. They respond to a large and complex idea with these anecdotes, because we have been taught to experience instances of failure as holistic failures.

This is a flawed logic with which we are indoctrinated, against our natural reason.

For anyone who has experienced a typical K-to-12 schooling, an aversion to failure is deeply ingrained. Failure is to be fiercely avoided, because to fail in school is to fail as a person. It means being kicked off the only possible road to success. Failure is made an identity, assigned to those thought to have no potential, and with no thought given to the circumstances and tasks at which they had failed.

It seems to me that failure is all around us. A failed geo-political philosophy. Failures to ensure justice. A failed healthcare system. Failure to protect the biosphere. And, to me most significantly, the failure of our educational systems to educate.

Yet how often are these failures acknowledged? Fingers get pointed, blame passed around. The problems that arise are neatly named and contained. “Solutions” to these symptoms include rearranging and relabeling, while questions of their source are dodged and diffused. Why? For fear of failure. The underlying ideology—be it capitalism, hierarchy or extractivism—is never allowed to fail. But until it is, the lessons of these failures will remain unexplored, and their solutions—cooperative, non-hierarchical, regenerative—unrealized.

Our relationship to failure must change.

It is clear, whether looking at evolutionary biology, social entrepreneurship, or the very fabric of our lives, that failure is a fundamental building block of success. More species have failed than are alive today; more businesses have failed than are present. If we are honest, we know many of our friendships, romances, and brilliant ideas will fail in one way or another. And when they do, we will learn something. Probably something more valuable than anything the compulsory education system could ever teach us.

This is why success in our endeavor to create a world that cooperates economically, politically, and interpersonally requires a serious reevaluation of our relationships, both with failure and the education system that has demonized it. For many of us, this will require a powerful and lengthy unlearning process, one which you have likely already begun. For those not yet schooled, it will take a revolutionary effort to save them… an effort that is already underway.

East Harlem, 2012: a democratic free school failed. By the following year, something new was growing in its place. An intentional community began to coalesce, both inspired and warned by the failures we, its members, had experienced.  We took lessons from free schools and co-ops and Quakers. We took lessons from innovators developing tools to facilitate collaboration at the speed of tech development. We took (and are taking) lessons from our own lives: noticing the skills we have had to teach ourselves in order to live intentionally and cooperatively, and making sure those are the skills we teach our children. We became the Agile Learning Center—already one of several Agile Learning Centers—and we are working to redefine education.

Through the use of open source tools and practices developed to facilitate co-creation and collaboration, we are preparing our students—and ourselves—with the skills needed to take care of themselves in respect to and relation to others. One of these tools is AgileLearningCenters.org, a WordPress/Buddypress based social network where our students, facilitators, and parents create and share value, both between schools and with the wider world. Non-digital tools include Kanban boards to manage our works-in-progress, Game Shifting boards to support communication in meetings, and Change-Up meetings to build community agreements and develop tools that serve us. By practicing intentionality and collaboration together, we hope to raise self-directed learners prepared to live and work in harmony with others.

Our tools often resemble games, developed to be used, but also to be adapted, morphed, and hacked. Our hope is that these games will continually fail in new and interesting ways, with each failure making them stronger or presenting an opportunity to create new, currently unimaginable games.

This is one of the lessons we’re living and sharing: that failure is awesome. It’s wisdom. It’s possibility. It’s an invitation to grow and play and build something new. Which is, of course, more fun to do together.

If you want to play with us…



This is adapted from a piece I collaborated on with my fellow ALFs for the Greater Brooklyn Zine, issue #3.

If you’re in New York City on January 16 go check out the issue #3 launch party.

Super special thanks to @Abby for doing the lions share of writing and editing while also getting the ball rolling on the whole article.

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