in Life

What I mean when I say “fail open”

I’m proud to be included in RVANews’ advice to soon-to-be college grads today. We were asked to give  tweet-length advice. Here’s mine:

Life gets a lot easier once you realize that nobody really knows what’s going on. Go forth with confidence, breathe, and fail open.

“Fail open” is a term that comes from the IT world. In security practices, it means something like, if the system fails, give the user access to the system anyway. It’s not a wildly popular IT security principle but it works a little better with humans.

Day-to-day, fail open has come to mean this for me: if you don’t know what to do, default your actions to “open.” So often we close ourselves to new or different things, people, and experiences because we are scared or because we don’t know what to do. If instead the default is to fail open, the world opens to us, too.

A few examples of what it means to fail open:

Say “yes” to something that scares you.

When you don’t understand what’s going on, ask for help.

Own it when you mess something up, then show how you have learned from it.

Notice when you feel uncomfortable. It means you’re growing.

Volunteer to take the lead.

Say how you feel.

Smile and say good morning to someone you don’t know instead of avoiding eye contact.

When in doubt: don’t close yourself. Fail open.

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