Thinking Big and Failing Fast: D’var Torah – Bo

Rabbi Sarah Bassin

This piece was originally published at ReformJudaism.org on January 20, 2018

Bo, Exodus 10:1−13:16

Think big. As a society, we value those who step beyond the status quo, who push us beyond what we think is possible. We think of them as heroic — because they possess a talent that we do not.

But what if thinking big were not a talent but a skill to be cultivated — something even God had to practice?

This week in Parashat Bo and last week in Parashat Va-eira, God goes through not one, not two, but ten plagues before finding that breakthrough — that thing that will both make Pharaoh free the Israelites and make the Israelites understand the importance of this event for generations.

Let’s put aside the ghastly nature of the plagues for a moment. Let’s release judgment about the fairness of Pharaoh’s hardened heart and the mass of Egyptian bystanders who suffered — because there’s something to be learned from God’s process through all of this.

First of all, God’s brainstorm must have been pretty spectacular. Blood, frogs, lice. You can almost picture God in front of a blank whiteboard telling the angels “there are no bad ideas.” With a whole array of options — some common, some magical — God picks one to start and goes with it.

But it becomes clear that with the first two attempts, God wasn’t thinking big enough. Pharaoh’s magicians replicated these early trials of blood and frogs with little difficulty. If the goal was to make Pharaoh cower into submission and inspire the Israelites indefinitely, God needed something bigger. With the plague of lice, there’s a small breakthrough. The Egyptian magicians cannot copy the action. By the time we hit boils, the Egyptian magicians not only cannot unlock the magic to replicate, but also, as the text tells us, suffer from the affliction themselves. 

Unlike God freeing the Israelites, we certainly don’t want to culminate our work with the slaying of the firstborn of an entire people. But there is a lesson to be learned from the trial and error of the plagues that ultimately led to a breakthrough for God.

God offers an inspiring model for thinking big. It is not a moment of sheer genius. It is a consistent slog to the thing that will break through. With each attempt, there’s a sense of getting closer and closer to the big, breakthrough idea. God doesn’t get it right at the beginning of the process. But God doesn’t get discouraged from forging ahead either. Perhaps God foresaw Thomas Edison’s advice that ‘“Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.”

When it comes to thinking big for ourselves, do we let ourselves try out impractical ideas that may not work? Do we create the space for imperfect attempts on our way to something extraordinary?

Design thinking is the latest trend to seep from Silicon Valley into mainstream culture and it posits that these “fast failures” aren’t incidental to breakthrough ideas — they’re essential. With each trial that you test out, you learn what works and what doesn’t, and then use that information to design the next prototype. You don’t spend months building up one idea only to learn that it’s not quite right. Failure of an idea in two days stings a lot less than failure after six months of pouring in sweat equity. 

We have conditioned ourselves to believe that experimentation comes across as unfinished and unprofessional — as something that should be done behind-the-scenes and with limits. We get embarrassed by failure and want what we launch to be spectacular on the first try.

But when avoiding failure becomes our goal, we deprive ourselves of the very thing that we seek — a transformative breakthrough. If God had relied on a more traditional thinking that shied away from failure, we would never have been freed. We would have been lucky to have had a few people go out to the desert for three days of worship before returning back to bondage. We certainly wouldn’t have had endless generations share our defining moment as a people over an annual seder.

Big thinkers don’t happen upon world-changing ideas. They often painstakingly fail on their way there. So if genius isn’t an attribute but a process, imagine the untapped genius that lies in wait — in each and every one of us. The even better news is that in order to get there, all we have to do is to start failing our way to success.

– Rabbi Sarah Bassin