The value of failure has become a mantra in Silicon Valley, with the rise of events like FailCon, a conference “for startup founders to study their own and others’ failures and prepare for success.” Failure, the thinking goes, is an intense form of hands-on education that — when done right —enables you to learn quickly and grow.
Despite the startup world’s enthusiasm, however, there’s often a lingering stigma: it’s less that you’ve tried and failed, and more that you are “a failure.” On a recent book tour supporting theFrench translation of my book, I met dozens of professionals who bemoaned what they viewed as their country’s particularly acute “one strike and you’re out” attitude toward failure. Of course, it’s not just in Europe; failure is still generally taboo almost everywhere in the world.
But the truth is that failure isn’t a rarity experienced by the unlucky few; if we’re honest, it’s a constant — albeit rarely lethal — state of affairs. In fact, it’s likely that you’ve already failed, or will soon (perhaps you launched a product that didn’t sell, were passed over for a promotion, flubbed a presentation, or any of a million other varieties). Here’s how to leverage that setback into even greater success.
Recognize that innovation requires failure. In a world where competitive advantage is increasingly short-lived, as Columbia Business School professor Rita Gunther McGrath hasdescribed, successful companies have to bake innovation into their standard processes. But innovation of any sort entails risk and trying new things — and that mandates failure. A 100% success rate implies you’re not doing anything new at all. The goal, says Eric Ries of The Lean Startup fame, is to create a minimum viable product that you’ll fully expect to iterate over time. In some ways, it’s a reframing: it’s not so much that you’re creating something (such as a product or service) that failed; it’s that you’re steadily improving a series of drafts.
Own your failure narrative. When I wrote an article a while back about someone involved in the U.S. financial markets and mentioned his indictment — and subsequent exoneration — during the crisis, I received an angry note from his wife: why did you have to include that? Of course, since he’d written about the experience in his own book (providing the most thoughtful and gripping part of the narrative), it hadn’t occurred to me they’d still be trying to keep it quiet. But habits, including the need to appear perfect, are hard to break.
That’s why talking about failure commands so much attention — it’s still shocking in a world that expects a triumphalist narrative. Blogger James Altucher has built a passionate following by writing in almost gory detail about his failures in business and life, including making millions and then losing it all, twice. In his book, The Education of a Value Investor, money manager Guy Spier tells his story of accepting a job soon out of business school at what turns out to be an ethically-challenged investment bank that soon goes down. Even though he didn’t participate in the malfeasance, he was humiliated by the stain on his resume, and grapples with his own naiveté. People might judge him and Altucher for their mistakes. But because they’re the ones telling the story, we’re able to see the world through their eyes, and grasp the full force of their redemption. (Altucher is now more successful than ever as a writer, and since 1997, Spier has run his own investment fund based on cautious, Warren Buffett-inspired principles.)
Understand that failure is an ongoing process. It’s important to recognize that failure is not a “one and done” phenomenon, where you climb the mountain and stay on top. Rather, it’s an ongoing process. On the same day this spring, I was turned down for two different fellowships I had applied for. That doesn’t mean I’m not successful; by other metrics — writing books, speaking, consulting, and teaching for business schools — I’m doing fine. But stretch goals are just that: things outside your wheelhouse that may work out, or not. The goal, as research shows, should be to make “new and different mistakes.” And if we want to make it safer for others to try, we have to be willing to talk about failure in the present tense — not just something that happened to us once, long ago.
We all love irresistible, come-from-behind success stories about “failed” entrepreneurs like Kevin Systrom, who folded his unsuccessful check-in app Burbn and pivoted it into the billion-dollar Instagram, or Ben Silbermann of Pinterest, which began life as a struggling mobile shopping site called Tote. Failure makes success possible, but not because of the eventual possibility for lucrative exits. Rather, failure opens the dialogue to show that we don’t have to be perfect; in fact, we can’t be. We need to speak honestly and openly — to let ourselves be known, so that failure and mistakes are put in their proper context. We can’t be afraid to acknowledge that, if we’re growing, failure isn’t an anomaly. It happens every day.