The great disaster that wasn’t (and won’t be)

Monstrous mould

My cousin has a loudmouth husband. Let’s call him Luis. Luis is opinionated, hilarious, and very sure of himself. And one night he invited all the family to partake of his famous handmade ravioli. But first, the appetiser.

Now, in the interests of transparency, you should know that as much as I rely on words for a living and am confident of my ability to use them, and use them well, I know that words will fail me when I describe this appetiser to you. There is nothing I can write that can encapsulate not just the appetiser itself, but the entire experience of eating it. So with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s move on.

Luis entered the dining room holding aloft a platter upon which was a large white dome. This dome was masked in mayonnaise, and decorated with hardboiled eggs, black olives, and what seemed to be sponge cake. Whatever it was, it looked absolutely spectacular… and weird.

“Wow!” someone said. “What is it?”

“Wait and see,” Luis replied.

He spooned helpings onto our plates, and I began eating with a sense of curiosity, which, with every forkful, segued to surprise, and finally, astonishment.

It wasn’t that the dish was horrible. At least – not altogether. It was just incredibly, incredibly strange. Nothing fit. It was a bunch of flavours, each one fine on its own, but the combination made absolutely no sense whatsoever to my palate. And yet, here it was, certainly edible, and crucially, staying down after we swallowed it.

“This is delicious,” my uncle said. “What’s in it?”

Luis settled himself further into his chair, smiled, and leaned forward. Story time.

“Well, I thought I would make a sponge roll for dessert, but it broke when I unmoulded it. I thought, ‘Why waste it?’ So I made it into the appetiser. I have in here cold mashed potato, mayonnaise, tuna, peas, pieces of the sponge cake, and tinned peaches.”

He looked proudly at us all and we murmured our approval. My uncle even asked for seconds. (No, no thanks, I said, patting my tummy when asked if I wanted more. Must leave room from the ravioli, I said.) The rest of the meal and night? Absolutely wonderful.

This is not a metaphor to tell you that unlikely combinations work. (They didn’t.) Or that when disaster strikes you can still create something magnificent. (It wasn’t.) I am grateful more than I can say for the fact that this is literally a dish that could never be repeated (unless, of course, we’re talking about indigestion). No metaphors at all, in fact. This is, instead, an example and a lesson.

When we reminisce about this night, those of us who were there have focused not on Luis and his incredible dish, but on what our attitude would have been if we’d invited eight people to dinner and our sponge roll had failed.

We each agree: despite the fact that we intellectually know that having people over for dinner is their privilege, our reaction wouldn’t be intellectual. It would be… well, pathetic. “I had a sponge roll all planned,” we’d apologise as we cut into the store-bought Sarah Lee, “But it was a disaster, sorry…” And if we created something as extraordinary as what Luis did, we wouldn’t be bringing it to the table proudly. We’d shuffle in and look at everyone for approval and validation, and then – phew! – breathe relief when they ate it.

I don’t want to be like this. I’m certain that being like Luis is the better way to be. Completely unapologetic. Proud of resourcefully turning his disaster into something amazing. And absolutely no explanations for why he did what he did. And you know the amazing thing? That as weird – and to foodies, as disastrous – as this dish was, we don’t refer to this dish as anything other than “That thing Luis made that time.” We certainly don’t define him by it. It’s just this one thing he did, and it just so happens that it fits with his loud, larger-than-life personality.

Creation carries with it the ever-present risk of disaster. (And all communication is creation. Until we find a way to transfer knowledge, sensations, and experiences directly into people’s brains, all communication is creation.) You have two options in the face of this: atrophy, or action.

Atrophy may look like action because it involves getting something just right. Except that you can’t ever ever ever get something just right. Which is why a firm I worked for recently had micro-managed their communications so much that it took 18 months and eight people to produce just one draft of their web copy. That’s not action, that’s atrophy: I’m sure all their frenzy over the 18 months made them feel like they were doing something, but in fact, they were stuck in place for fear of getting it wrong. How much did it cost them, both directly and indirectly? I’m afraid to ask.

If you are atrophied, here is what you need to know: everything you communicate is a draft. There’s never something that’s perfect. There’s only ever a final draft. Someone, at some point, calls it, signs off on it, and it’s done. And they call it done until someone, at some point, says, “Let’s do it again.”

Action carries risks, but it also carries the antidote: testing and measuring. You put your drafts out there, and instead of doing it with the trepidation (and sometimes, yes, arrogance) that people prone to perfection are subject to, you do it with a spirit of curiosity. What’s this communication going to do? Who’s going to respond? What are they going to do as a result? Sometimes it will work, and sometimes it won’t, and that’s OK, because action teaches you to do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. After all, Luis may have been proud of his wacky appetiser, but he didn’t make it again, and has stuck with what he cooks best: his scrumptious ravioli.

When you choose action, there’s no question that you’ll screw up. The real question is: what will you do about it?

Despite your best efforts to create something magnificent, your screwups will sit there bold as brass, daring you to make something acceptable out of them. Will you apologise, justify, and explain, and look to others for validation that what you did is not so bad? Pah. The content strategy that failed woefully? Make the best of it and move on. The blog that hundreds of people heaped buckets o’ manure on? Make the best of it and move on. The marketing that didn’t make its money back? Make the best of it and move on. All the time testing and measuring, measuring and testing.

No explanations. No justifications. No apologies.

Those of us who are your market and audience may think your failures are weird, but you know what? Unless you need to make something up to us, we’re too self-absorbed to care that much about any explanations you might have. After a little while, we move on. So should you.


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