It is no great secret that I love my work and working in general.  After all, Churnless‘ motto was taken from a Teddy Roosevelt quote (“Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”) and I come from a family and community where the culture of work is a strong part of our personal identity.

Which is why this recent iPad commercial featuring Robin Williams’ Dead Poets Society speech drives me nuts.  Leaving aside that everything people are doing isn’t unique to the iPad and you could sub in basically any tablet, it is the monologue that really kills me.

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business these are all noble pursuits necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, and love; these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman “Oh me, Oh life of the question of these recurring. of the endless trains of the faithless of cities filled with the foolish. What good amid these? Oh me, Oh life.” “Answer…that you are here and life exists….You are here. Life exists, and identity. The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

Look, I love Dead Poets Society as much as the next person.  And I think this is a powerful and well-spoken monologue.  But it is meant to inspire a room full of school boys who believe that they will all go on to be business mavens and who need to be reminded of beauty.  And it sets up art and work as separate, with art being the valuable bit.  Art is lovely and beautiful. Work is obligation, labor.

“Medicine, law, business these are all noble pursuits necessary to sustain life.”  Boom!  Drop the mic.  That’s the power of work right there.  And there is a poetry in all those of those things.  I challenge anyone to watch a surgeon perform a complex surgery that saves a life and not tell me that there is art and beauty in that moment.

What we do with our time is a huge part of our identity.  And the science is incredibly clear: people who don’t work, who can’t find meaning and employment, generally aren’t happy.  Sure, people who work in jobs that feel ineffective and boring aren’t as happy as those who find import in their work, but they are generally still better off than the unemployed (psychologically speaking) and that’s not the same as saying that work itself is fundamentally bad, just that those particular work situations are.  Just because some people get divorced or stay in bad relationships doesn’t mean that all marriages are bad, so why would we suggest that because some work is mundane, all work is necessarily less important than art.

And art and poetry are, more off than not when done well, work.  There is a great essay by Barbara Kingsolver in High Tide in Tucson about her muse, which she envisions not as some loving, wispy figure but as a gent with a baseball bat who comes around immediately after she puts her daughter on the bus and reminds her that she now has six or so hours in which to produce the work that puts food on the table.

Think about the magic marker study.  They’ve just come out, they’re awesome, blowing kids’ minds.  So you give them to two different classes and let them play.  And at the end of the day, one class just goes home, and the other class gets a “good player” award before they leave.  Second day, same thing.  Third day, you don’t give the class the “good player” award.  And on day four, suddenly those kids just aren’t as interested in the magic markers.  Because you replaced all the intrinsic motivation of fun with extrinsic motivation of getting an award.

But work doesn’t have to be that.  Just because we receive a paycheck for doing it, it doesn’t have to be devoid of meaning.  Whitman reminded us all to contribute a verse and the truth, for most everyone, is this: the most powerful verse your contribute to the extension of mankind will happen at work.  It will be that which supports necessity of life.  And it will be beautiful.

Edison once said something to the effect of not failing at making a light bulb, but simply finding a bunch of ways of making a light bulb that didn’t work.  What he didn’t point out is that the reason he got to the light bulb and others didn’t is that they didn’t have access to those mistakes.  Which is great in a world where you want to own light bulb making, but not so great if you actually want to advance civilization (note: if you get a chance, read about Edison and his insane capitalist tendencies).

In academia, we call this the “file drawer problem”.  The basic idea is that studies that show a novel effect get published, and studies that don’t get stuck in a file drawer and nobody knows they exist.  And the reason it is a problem is that those failures may be novel in and of themselves; knowing that somebody else tried something and it didn’t work prevents you from wasting a bunch of resources trying the same thing.

Like Edison, people theoretically have the right to hoard their failures as private data.  But I think more often, people do it out of shame.  We see it in business all the time: failed startups, product flops, rebranding gone woefully, woefully awry and people trying to backpedal and spin and hope that nobody notices. It’s not that the people behind these concepts are intentionally making mistakes; mistakes are a natural part of life.  And by failing to document and share them, we slow down our progress by a significant amount.

If every founder of every failed startup penned a candid, introspective blog post a few months after they shut the doors that detailed what went wrong, we’d be opening the file drawer into a world of knowledge that benefits the community at large.  And even if that moves the needle from “nine out of every 10 startups fail” to “eight out of every 10 startups fail,” that’d be a massive win.

But what about the significant inhibiting pressure of the fact that you have to out yourself as a failure?  First, everyone already knows.  The spin rarely works, especially when your startup shutters, so it isn’t like you’re hiding the embarrassing bit.  Second, you’re helping your community (and what’s the point of being in a community if you don’t contribute to it?).  Third, and most importantly, talking about failures shows maturity.  And as any investor will tell you, investing in mature founders is a heck of a lot better than investing in failures who don’t want to share why they failed in an honest way.

Could your post mortem get a little viral? Sure. There are a few currently making the rounds. But that’s not a bad thing: the whole point here is that other people can learn from your mistakes.  Because when we view startups as fundamental to the progress of civilization, you can learn from the mistakes of scientists.  You can fix the file drawer problem that we are still figuring out, and you can do it with a grace that we will likely never achieve, for reasons of academic ego.  And for once, wouldn’t be better to be smarter than the scientists?