The Power of the Marginal, Innovation, and the Strength of Failure

In 2006 Paul Graham published an e-book entitled The Power of the Marginal. While originally intended for the tech community and entrepreneurs, the general point is applicable to almost every field, including politics. Graham suggests that his message in one sentence is “just try hacking something together.” In other words, be innovative and try new things. There are many disadvantages to approaching projects as an insider: “the selection of the wrong kind of people, the excessive scope, the inability to take risks, the need to seem serious, the weight of expectations, the power of vested interests, the undiscerning audience, and perhaps most dangerous, the tendency of such work to become a duty rather than a pleasure.”

One of the strengths of the Young Democrats of America is that it is a chapter-based organization, with local chapters spread throughout the country. Chapters should be coming up with new ideas, new applications for tools, new methods, etc. In essence, be willing to take the risk of trying out a new idea, even though it may fail. Graham argues that the ability “to take risks is hugely valuable.” Every successful innovation has been a risk. Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations dedicates an entire chapter to the power of failure. According to Shirky “failure is free, high-quality research, offering direct evidence of what works and what doesn’t.” If local chapters are innovating, acting on ideas, and sharing their successes and failures with other chapters and YDA, the organization benefits greatly. That is the advantage of being a local chapter: you have the power to try new things.

Don’t get stuck in the belief that you have to do things the way they have always been done or be afraid to try something because it has never been done before. Think about ideas that come from other areas and see if you can find a way to apply them to your goals. Read books that change the way you approach problems, books like Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, etc. Read blogs and articles from other disciplines, from psychology to marketing and anything in between. The most important thing is to not hide your failures, but to share them. The more we know about was hasn’t worked, the better we are able to come up with ideas that might work.