“Fail fast.” We know the great silicon valley mantra. In theory, it’s great, but who among us fails—I mean really fails and admits it? I’m a proponent, but sometimes we shortcut the operative word, failure and miss the benefit, so here’s my post about sucking at failing. Maybe you can identify.
I don’t like admitting defeat; who does? In fact, I don’t even like the appearance of weakness, and that makes it hard for me to grow. I think back on my life in business and most of my failures were, in fact, failures. I flunked at failing. Pride, ego, and will have all stood in the way of my growth, and instead I’ve opted to deflect and blame others. Sadly, I’ve missed some real opportunities to grow.
When we’re kids, one of our primary goals is to feel no pain. We bop along as free spirits trying new things. We get hungry and cry until we’re fed. We ride bikes as fast as humanly possible and then we slide along the pavement. We touch things, and wham we touch the hot stove. HOLY COW THAT HURTS. Pretty quickly, we accept that pain is bad, and we don’t want to do those things again. As we get older, though, we don’t “fail” as much, we try fewer “new” things, and we don’t want to admit defeat.
So, what is failure? Unsuccessful accomplishment of goals? Well, I think to truly fail you must have the following elements:
1. Knowing what you want to accomplish — Goals
First, you must know what you want to accomplish. Although we don’t always identify a goal, we typically have an idea of what we want to do. Without an objective, there is no benchmark to measure failure or success for that matter.
2. Acting towards the goal — Execution
Obvious, right? Failure cannot happen until we get started. We have to do something, act, execute, or ship. More ideation, analysis, and perfection all stand in the way of executing.
3. Missing the mark — Failing
We actually have to fail. What was the original goal? Are we on track to succeed but the timing is wrong? Failing is execution without results.
4. Stopping what you’re doing
I think the biggest issue in my failed failures is refusing to admit the miss and continue to act. “I can overcome this setback,” I think, and I just keep pressing—Einstein’s definition of insanity. Truth is, sometimes, you just have to “cut bait and fish” as they say. Admitting failure, learning, and moving on is so refreshing. It is liberating when you are no longer bound by the heaviness of the slog. The issue is knowing whether you need to press through or whether you need to quit and move on. Seth Godin talks about this in The Dip. The dip requires perseverance. The cul de sac requires honesty, admission, and stopping. Unfortunately, the only way to know the difference is experience.
5. Owning the failure — Admission
In my work, I’m typically the “strategist,” the idea guy responsible for carving out new directions, and I’ve had numerous opportunities to fail. Sometimes, I’m fortunate enough to have good people around me to help me move in those directions, and because of missing a mark in strategy and execution, I’ve caused them to fail. I’ve hired people that I ultimately had to lay off because I miscalculated our need for their services. I’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on poorly-timed ideas. Bottom line, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and at least half of the time, I’ve not recognized them as failure because I’ve blamed someone else or made an excuse. When I have accepted the failure and internalized that it was my fault, I’ve grown.
6. Learning a lesson — Takeaway
Failure is good. Our grade-inflated world made the sting of the “F” stigmatizing. Failure is simply this, “not yet ready.” The lessons from failure sting and teach us lessons that we will likely never make again. These lessons are more valuable and penetrating than anything we learn in a classroom.
When I hire someone, I always tell them that my goal is to give them the opportunity to take chances. Hopefully that will generate big results, and occasionally it will result in failure. Learn the lesson and move on.
Failure should be celebrated. There is no better education than trying things realizing, “well, that didn’t work out like I thought it would.” Fail boldly and learn something. Do something worthy of getting fired–much better than safely doing something unremarkable–and if you find yourself in a situation where you don’t have the opportunity to actually make a mistake and learn. Then maybe you need a different gig.