I tend to talk about failure a bit on this blog. Failure is a good topic for discussion, whether it is project failure or failures by people. Why is it such a good topic to talk about? Because people fail every day and so do companies. However, in our world, people like to talk about success, especially monstrous success even though a very small fraction of people will ever achieve it. I like to talk about failure because everyone knows what it feels like in some way, and there are not a lot of people talking about it.
Recently, there was an excellent thread about failure on a mailing list that was start by Wil Reynolds and his post about applauding failure. The basic idea is that people are constantly talking about big successes, but little is said about failure. Given that I agree, it should be no surprise that I liked the post, but there was one section that was really memorable:
The other thing I notice is that most entrepreneurs are the best exaggerators and liars out there. You think they are successful, but they aren’t. Closing a round of funding is not success, its a lifeline. Selling the business and taking care of yourself and the people who helped build it is, not ruining your family to win in business is success, along with a slew of other things…
I highly recommend you read the rest of his post as well. The key point here is that success in business is only a small part of the puzzle. If you sacrificed your health and your personal relationships for that success, did you really succeed? I am sure that some of the huge successes that we read about have come at the expense of something significant like this. So, instead of focusing purely on the drive to succeed, what if we focus on the failures?
In most places, any sort of failure is seen as a very bad thing, almost like a disease that is contagious. Like all people, I fail every day. I try not to dwell on that particular failure except to know why I failed and what I could do differently. Failure sucks, but that does not mean it is not useful. A few months ago, I talked about people failing and why it is not such a bad thing:
Projects and companies fail all of the time. If people stopped at their first major failure, half of the entrepreneurs currently working in Silicon Valley would not be working. So, what did you learn from the failure? Adopt failure as a badge of courage. We all fail during our careers, but it is what we learn from those failures that defines our career.
So, who do you know that has failed recently? What can you learn from them or the decisions that were made?
Why should we focus on failure so much? Because you rarely learn much from other people’s success. Look at some of the major successes in our industry. What can you learn from Microsoft‘s rise to dominance? There are some basic business decisions that are useful, but typically there is not a lot of new advice. Google’s success has even less to offer. Display ads make money, but that is not surprising. Google’s search results were better than existing search engines, but the core ideas behind PageRank cannot be used to build another empire. Facebook is another success that yields little, and they continue to make mistakes in several areas.
One reason people focus on success is to find that recipe or secret 10 steps that will lead them to greatness. This idea is obviously flawed, and even these great successes are littered with failure. Windows did not really dominate until after v3.1. Google may have dominated search results but had to find a way to make money, and they have had plenty of other failures along the way. The failures can give you knowledge of what not to do, and through that process you can find what you need to be successful. That really makes each failure a mini-success.
Thomas Edison is widely quoted when it comes to failure, mainly because he has some excellent quotes. There are two that I wanted to leave you with. The first is a way to overcome failure:
I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.
The second quote is more related to narrowing your search for success:
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
So, go forth and fail!