Monday, October 12, 2015

The importance of failure

I was speaking to an entrepreneur today whose project is struggling and on the verge of failure. I encouraged him to NOT ask for donations; the need for a commercial venture to ask for donations is the market's way of telling you that your project HAS ALREADY FAILED.

Now, it is important to understand that failure is the seed of success, just as success is the seed of failure. This isn't a Zen koan, it is a simple and straightforward observation. Most successful individuals, myself included, have more failures than successes. There are very, very, very few exceptions; I am having lunch today with a 2x New York Times bestselling author whose first two novels were #1 bestsellers, but she is the exception and she very well knows it.

The three keys to failure leading to success are as follows:
  1. Fail faster. Once it is clear that it isn't working as anticipated, shut it down!
  2. Learn from the mistakes you made. 
  3. Apply the lessons learned in your next venture.
There is zero shame in failure. There is only shame in lacking the courage to try, and lacking the resolution to pick yourself up afterwards and try again.



Blogger RC October 12, 2015 9:18 AM  

Indeed. Risk is a potent spice and life is bland without it in fair measure. Over time a man leading an interesting life will fail. And succeed. His children and grandchildren will benefit from both.

Blogger Rantor October 12, 2015 9:24 AM  

As an Air Force officer I was one of the few that taught my people to recognize failure, embrace it, announce it, learn from it and move on. So many try to hide or rationalize away something as a mistake or blame shift, etc. The sooner you recognize and accept failure the sooner you can move on to do something else, and perhaps succeed.

Blogger JartStar October 12, 2015 9:53 AM  

Number one is the toughest, particularly if you have invested a great deal of time combined with an emotional investment.

Blogger David The Good October 12, 2015 9:56 AM  

Very, very good post.

Anonymous Anonymous October 12, 2015 9:59 AM  

One of the most important lessons in mountain climbing is to accept failure - the recent movie Everest is based on a true story of what happened when a group of climbers forgot that lesson.

Blogger Dexter October 12, 2015 10:04 AM  


You may have as many as several seconds to accept failure between the moment it happens and the moment of impact. =)

Blogger Josh October 12, 2015 10:24 AM  

Vox, could you elaborate on fail faster?

Anonymous Anonymous October 12, 2015 10:37 AM  

Number one is the toughest, particularly if you have invested a great deal of time combined with an emotional investment

Absolutely, but not just because of the investment, also because you don't want to give up too soon either. Fail faster basically means you are going to give yourself lots of chances at success by not blowing all your resources and all your reserves on one opportunity. Even though success is hard, if you give yourself enough chances, if you don't let the failures sink you, you'll eventually find your success. But not if you give up on it too early.

So you have to go into the project with some reasonable idea of what success and failure will look like early on so you can make the call.

Blogger James Sullivan October 12, 2015 10:40 AM  

This is exactly right. And it goes right along with the single best advice I was given at the beginning of my study of martial arts:

Don't invest your ego. When you invest your ego in an endeavor, failure is something you will fear more than anything and this is counterproductive.

Blogger Daniel Babylon October 12, 2015 10:45 AM  

@7. Josh

If you recognize that whatever you are doing isn't gonna work out, Vox is suggesting that you shut it down immediately and move on. Don't drag out the death of that project, wasting time, resources, and energy.

Blogger Christopher Yost October 12, 2015 10:53 AM  

Many problems stem from those around you not able to accept that failure and move on.

There are times where it becomes a months-long merry go round (one word?) of blame and bullshit drama.

And then they get pissy when I tell 'em to fuck off.

Blogger Danby October 12, 2015 11:22 AM  

And speaking of failing faster....

Blogger Rantor October 12, 2015 11:29 AM  

@ Christopher Yost... that is why you must admit it, embrace it, and move on. I would get the strangest looks from people when I would announce that something had failed. Our military is so filled with courtiers and people blowing smoke, performance reports that make soldiers sound like demi-gods, it is embarrassing. Saying no to the boss is frequently a dramatic moment, not for me as much as for the boss, as they are not used to it.

Blogger Nate October 12, 2015 11:30 AM  

this is excellent advice.

Blogger Dystopic October 12, 2015 11:36 AM  

Knowing when to walk away is difficult, but crucial.

Blogger Danby October 12, 2015 11:37 AM  

Most of the damage from failing actually comes from trying to rescue an effort that is not recoverable.

The economy is a great example. If the Fed had allowed a short downturn in 2002 and 2008, we would not be looking at, and trying to avoid, a currency collapse.

Blogger slarrow October 12, 2015 11:39 AM  

Just finished reading Scott Adams' (the Dilbert guy) book, How to Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big, and he's giving exactly this same advice.

An interesting related point is that he says that you shouldn't be a goal-setter. People who set goals are constantly feeling like they're failing until they reach the goal, get a limited period of feeling successful, and then go back to that awkward failing feeling because they set a new goal. Instead, he talks about creating and following a system in which everything you do is to increase your odds of success. Failing, then, is great if you're acquiring a new skill or making an important contact. "Failure", as such, doesn't even exist because you're finding your success in simply following your system.

But the important thing in any case is to keep going. Inertia is a powerful weapon, for or against you.

Blogger Zach October 12, 2015 11:58 AM  

Wishing I'd gotten this clue as a younger man, instead of running with "FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION!" as the default.

This, of course, has its own failure modes, but they don't become obvious until later.


Blogger The Other Robot October 12, 2015 12:10 PM  

Given the failure of Bath House Barry to carry out the desires of Wall Street with sufficient ardor, I would not be surprised if they take a lone nut out of his cage to solve that problem. They they can get Biden to do their bidding.

Blogger daddynichol October 12, 2015 12:17 PM  

The three keys to failure leading to success are as follows:
Fail faster. Once it is clear that it isn't working as anticipated, shut it down!

Learn from the mistakes you made.

Apply the lessons learned in your next venture.

All of which is ignored by bureaucrats.

Blogger ajw308 (#98) October 12, 2015 12:53 PM  

"Fail fast & fail cheap" is one of the most counter intuitive philosophies out there, but it'll save money and leave more time for the successes.

Blogger Red Jack October 12, 2015 1:25 PM  

Most companies don't accept this. Failure means someone must pay with their job. So you have stagnant industries afraid to do anything new.

I suspect that may be the way Apple goes now that Jobs is gone.

Blogger DadOfTen October 12, 2015 2:11 PM  

While programming in mainframe assembler and COBOL for a living, we had a leader come back and tell the team coding a healthcare claim processing system that they needed to fail faster! He had just been to an inspiring program about it. Couldn't we see the wisdom? Just install the programming quickly, without testing it to death. Then we could fail our way to success.

In this case we carefully and completely ignored him. He made the mistake of thinking that you can fail your way to success when processing 50,000 claims each night. That could have been 50,000 mistakes each night with 50,000 mad consumers. He did not understand that the idea was to fail small, quick, and cheaply so that you can learn to build the big systems that will be unstoppably right.

Blogger VFM #0202 October 12, 2015 2:35 PM  

I have a totalitarian coding style. The code works because I give it no choice. The assertions of course, must be supported by the code. Cross-bracing works.

Blogger Chiva October 12, 2015 2:39 PM  

Fail faster. Once it is clear that it isn't working as anticipated, shut it down!

Test early, test often.

Blogger Danby October 12, 2015 2:45 PM  

Sometimes, when failure is not an option, that's only because you've made it mandatory.

Blogger Nate Winchester October 12, 2015 3:16 PM  

Ok, I need a rule of thumb to make something clearer. Yes there's the "good money after bad" fallacy, but I also know there's a "give up too easily" fallacy.

So... what's a rule of thumb for when you just need to put in some more effort & trying vs the point where you just burn it down and start over?

Anonymous Anonymous October 12, 2015 3:33 PM  

When you are considering pushing out the end date a third time, it is time to seriously embrace the notion that it's time to call it off.

Blogger DadOfTen October 12, 2015 3:34 PM  

For business my idea is to copy the person who is the most successful until you have a good revenue flow. Then spend 10 to 50% of your time experimenting with changes to that, or completely new ways to sell or deliver services. Never kill your cash cow until you have supplanted it with a bigger cash cow. Then slaughter or sell the old one.

"They copied all they could follow,
but they couldn't copy my mind
so I left them sweating and stealing
a year and a half behind." -Kipling

Blogger Unknown October 12, 2015 3:54 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

Blogger CCubed October 12, 2015 4:01 PM  


The road to wisdom?—Well, it's
plain and simple to express:
and err
and err again,
but less
and less
and less.
— Piet Hein

Blogger Nate Winchester October 12, 2015 4:04 PM  

@28 zyz65

Are you saying an end date such as with software development/go live or something more general? (cause I'm not struggling with code at the moment)

Blogger HalibetLector October 12, 2015 4:46 PM  


'Fail early and often' example 1: release a prototype with the least amount of functionality as quickly as possible and see how people respond. If they like it, but wish it had feature X, Y or Z, you know what to focus on next. If nobody likes it, shut it down and do something else. Some entrepreneurs do this dozens of times before they stumble on something people are interested in.

Example 2: create a landing page for a product you haven't actually developed yet. Make it look like it's already available and when the user goes to buy it, instead of a checkout page it's a page that says the product isn't available yet, but give us your email and we'll let you know when it's ready. This is a great way to gauge consumer interest before spending any development time and/or money.

Blogger Jill October 12, 2015 5:04 PM  

Yes. Good post. Thanks for this (esp the part about doing asking for donations).

Anonymous Anonymous October 12, 2015 5:07 PM  

I guess I will be the one to compare "Fail fast & fail cheap" to where unprofitable businesses burn down and collect insurance. I believe its called a certain type of lightning.

Blogger clk October 12, 2015 5:08 PM  

Thomas Edison once said " I have not failed, I just have found 10,000 ways that didnt work."

Blogger Thomas Davidsmeier October 12, 2015 5:23 PM  

I doubt those #1 Best Sellers were first drafts. Maybe, but I bet not.

School is terrible about this. It teaches the students that success is the norm and failure is only for those with serious problems. The design of the system is doing them no favors.

Blogger Thomas Davidsmeier October 12, 2015 5:25 PM  

Don't get me wrong, I try to have this very talk with my students each year. But, they always stare at me blankly like the idea of admitting failure or even admitting that they are struggling with a topic is radioactive poison.

Blogger Harold October 12, 2015 5:46 PM  

Fail early fail often is a good philosophy in other areas of life. Most of the girls I dated, I dated once. The 3rd girl I went on a 3rd date with is the one I married. It's only been 37 years now, but I think it might be a success.

Blogger ncartist October 12, 2015 7:19 PM  

Excellent advice.
Taking risks and permitting yourself to fail means not taking the easy way out: to quit trying and getting an easy job: one has to learn to endure, sometimes for long periods of time.

Anonymous Anonymous October 12, 2015 9:05 PM  

All of which is ignored by bureaucrats.

Bureaucrats are what they are because they are terrified of individual failure and want to boil everything down to officially sanctioned ways of doing it so any failure can be blamed on "the system" instead of on any particular person. Bureaucracies at their heart are nothing but ways to socialize failure.

Rabbit warrens.

Post a Comment

Rules of the blog
Please do not comment as "Anonymous". Comments by "Anonymous" will be spammed.

<< Home

Newer Posts Older Posts