A Brief Overview of Failure from Pecha Kucha #19 (Part 2)

Yesterday, I wrote up the first part of a brief overview of the last Pecha Kucha Night, which was held on Friday, the 17th of May, and focused on Failure. It wasn’t all that brief, though, because there was so much to say, and I decided to split it up into two parts. This is the second part of the overview, and covers six of the eleven presentations given that night (the first five can be found here).

Anshul Tewari, the founder of Youth Ki Awaaz, gave a very touching presentation about his personal experience with bullying. In a performance of sorts, he took on four different roles to demonstrate different kinds of failure in our society. The first role, that of a bully, portrayed someone who picks on someone who is different and unusual, and makes that person feel isolated, alone and friendless. The second role was that of a spectator, of someone who can see injustice being done in front of them but choose not to act, and rather just walk away. The third role was that of a teacher, who is meant to be a guide, to teach the difference between right and wrong, but she failed too, by doing nothing when the bullying was happening in front of her. The fourth role was that of the person who was bullied. By not speaking up about what he was facing, to either his peers, his teachers or his family, he failed as well. These four different kinds of failures serve to show how society often suppresses and disallows expression among its youth. It celebrates success but hides and denies failure, and in doing so, can silence the people who are most affected. This was a big part of the reason why Anshul started Youth Ki Awaaz, as he wanted to create a platform where young people could speak up about anything and be heard.

Ajay Chaturvedi talked about how failure and success are really determined by one’s perspective. While certain work might be considered a success in the conventional world, if you aren’t enjoying yourself and feeling a sense of satisfaction, that is a failure as well. Ajay related his own story of working in the banking sector, with the Citi group, when he was living in the U.S. and was earning well. While he was certainly successful in the conventional sense, he was not enjoying his work and decided to return to India and take some time off, during which he went to the Himalayas. While there, it struck him that one of the most important and meaningful things he could do would be to invest in farms and farming communities, and to work on creating change from the grassroots. When he began working with village communities in Haryana, however, and set up BPOs, the uptake wasn’t very high, and while the effort was applauded, in many senses he had failed, largely because he hadn’t really understood the needs of the people. That was when he realized that the women in these villages were practically hidden, and had no real access to opportunities. And this served as the inspiration for HarVa’s setting up of the world’s first all-women BPO, where he was actually adding value to their lives.

Muhammad Khan spoke about failure from an interesting perspective – that of the politician. While it is commonplace for people to complain and abuse governments for their failures, we don’t often consider that politicians are people too, and also have lives and challenges they must overcome. Muhammad talked about how the life of politician is necessarily punctuated with failure – absolute, humiliating, sometimes debilitating, crushing failure. Not only do they lose time, money, effort and respect when they lose elections, their defeat is also celebrated widely. Politicians, therefore, need to develop a unique kind of resilience to failure, and have to overcome it repeatedly to continue in their profession. The few successes they do have are often not apparent immediately, or arise in the face of massive opposition. For example, Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves, was not widely supported by most constituencies, despite now being regarded as one of the greatest acts approved by a politician. This resilience, however, is translated into an ability to also make difficult decisions and take impossible risks. These too, can be good or bad, but there is a lot to be learned from their ability to fall down again and again, but still get up and try again.

Varun Chawla, co-founder of 91 Springboard, is a serial entrepreneur who’s now on his sixth startup. Each prior experience taught him valuable lessons along his entrepreneurial journey, however – both the outright failures and the successes which could have been even better. He began by talking about Sean Parker, founder of Napster and Plaxo, both of which were big failures, but he is most certainly one of the most successful entrepreneurs today. This is because failure isn’t always absolute, and can teach you valuable lessons. Moreover, success and failure aren’t always directly determined by the commercial outcomes. Moving on to talk about his own startup journey, Varun talked about the five startups before 91 Springboard, including an investment firm, a service company for international corporates, and a travel company. Each failure taught him an important aspect of running a business, from the fact that he couldn’t do it alone, to learning how to build the right team, having the right co-founder and partner, and also setting up the right business models and infrastructure for success. While not all the startups were failures – My Guest House was acquired by Make My Trip – even there, there was lot that could have been done better, he feels in retrospect, and hopes that his latest venture will incorporate all these past learnings, and hopefully also help other startups not make the same mistakes.

Tamseel Hussain, a campaigner for Change.org, surprisingly chose not to talk about any campaign failures, which he assured us were many. Instead, he decided to talk about a failed music festival that he was involved in organizing in 2010. The festival, Ujaan, started out as an idea put forth by about 40 young people in Calcutta who wanted to have a small lake-side festival in the Sunderbans. However, the idea grew and changed and became much bigger than was originally envisioned. The core team grew to about 200 young people, with expectations that over 6000 people would attend this music and arts festival. And most importantly, the festival was infused with a cause of environmentalism and sustainability. It attracted lots of sponsors, including WHO, and had a large budget with which they were able to book over 50 bands. But then, this rosy state was disrupted as environmentalists and activists began to protest the festival, and local political groups began to get involved. Activists claimed that the festival would destroy the Sunderbans, one of the most environmentally rich and diverse forests in India. Political parties claimed the noise pollution would disturb the residents in the area. And in the process, the 200 young adults organizing the festival were declared anarchists. They received threats that their headquarters in Calcutta would be destroyed. So, just three days before the festival was meant to happen, it was called off. While it was a failure in many ways, Tamseel talked about how the kids involved were inspired and motivated to take the language of sustainability and environmentalism forward. And for him personally, the experience taught him how to build a community and create a movement, something that has been invaluable in his work at Change.org.

Nikhil Pahwa, the final speaker of the evening, spoke about his college years, when he was enrolled in a Mechanical Engineering program that he failed for three years in a row. During this time, he was depressed and felt burdened by his repeated failures, but this also served as inspiration for him to begin writing. He wrote poetry, which helped him greatly to overcome this unhappy state, even while he attempted to complete his Mechanical Engineering course for two more years. After this, he decided to drop out of the program and looked for a job instead. This too proved extremely difficult and no one would hire him. Finally, he decided to go back to college for a communications course, which he ended up excelling at. And this, of course, was followed by a series of other successes including the creation of Medianama, now the biggest platform for news on technology and the digital age in India. The main lesson within all these repeated failures, said Nikhil, is that life is a constant series of ups and downs. The main thing to learn is to push and try harder on the way up, and to slow it down as much as possible on the downturn. Using the famous Japanese painting, the Great Wave of Kanagama, Nikhil ended by saying that failure and success are really about perspective. Depending on where you are (the fisherman in the boat), the wave may look massive while Mount Fuji is miniscule, or the other way around.

This concludes my (rather lengthy) brief overview of the event. We are working on creating videos of each presentation, but unfortunately, due to the echo withing the space, the sound recordings are not very clear. We’re working on seeing if that can be rectified, so that we can hopefully release the videos soon. Stay tuned and like our community page on facebook to stay updated.

About Ayesha Vemuri

Ayesha Vemuri is responsible for thought leadership and outreach efforts at CKS. She has undergraduate degree in Visual Art from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she also studied such varied subjects as biology, literature and the humanities. At CKS, she is responsible for curating the Design Public blog, managing our various social media platforms, organizing Pecha Kucha Nights and contributing to the intellectual content of the Design Public Conclave and other CKS initiatives. Find her on twitter at @ayeshavemuri.
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