mr. r. s. braythwayt,

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What I've Learned From Failure
What I've Learned From Failure

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The Emperor's Old Clothes, by C.A.R. Hoare

Many years ago, there was an Emperor who was so excessively fond of clothes that he spent all his money on dress. He did not trouble himself with soldiers, attend banquets, or give judgement in court. Of any other king or emperor one might say, “He is sitting in council,” but it was always said of him, “The emperor is sitting in his wardrobe.” And so he was. On one unfortunate occasion he had been tricked into going forth naked to his chagrin and the glee of his subjects. He resolved never to leave his throne, and to avoid nakedness, he ordered that each of his many new suits of clothes should be simply draped on top of the old.

Time passed away merrily in the large town that was his capital. Ministers and courtiers, weavers and tailors, visitors and subjects, seamstresses and embroiderers, went in and out of the throne room about their various tasks, and they all exclaimed, “How magnificent is the attire of our Emperor.”

One day the Emperor’s oldest and most faithful Minister heard tell of a most distinguished tailor who taught at an ancient institute of higher stitchcraft, and who had developed a new art of abstract embroidery using stitches so refined that no one could tell whether they were actually there at all. “These must indeed be splendid stitches,” thought the minister. “If we can but engage this tailor to advise us, we will bring the adornment of our Emperor to such heights of ostentation that all the world will acknowledge him as the greatest Emperor there has ever been.”

So the honest old Minister engaged the master tailor at vast expense. The tailor was brought to the throne room where he made obeisance to the heap of fine clothes which now completely covered the throne. All the courtiers waited eagerly for his advice. Imagine their astonishment when his advice was not to add sophistication and more intricate embroidery to that which already existed, but rather to remove layers of the finery, and strive for simplicity and elegance in place of extravagant elaboration. “This tailor is not the expert that he claims,” they muttered. “His wits have been addled by long contemplation in his ivory tower and he no longer understands the sartorial needs of a modern Emperor.”

The tailor argued loud and long for the good sense of his advice but could not make himself heard. Finally, he accepted his fee and returned to his ivory tower.

Never to this very day has the full truth of this story been told: That one fine morning, when the Emperor felt hot and bored, he extricated himself carefully from under his mountain of clothes and is now living happily as a swineherd in another story. The tailor is canonized as the patron saint of all consultants, because in spite of the enormous fees that he extracted, he was never able to convince his clients of his dawning realization that their clothes have no Emperor.

C.A.R. Hoare


This is the concluding parable from Hoare’s 1980 Turing Award Lecture. The original PDF is widely available, including here.