The importance of failure
This post originally appeared on Virgin for their purpose-driven business series
I used to avoid failure because it made me feel stupid. Then I noticed that anyone who had done anything interesting was immune to how failure made them feel.
They weren’t trying to achieve a feeling. They were trying to achieve outcomes regardless of how they felt along the way.
At Escape the City, we’d long been developing education products that help our members to start a business or make a career change. While there are now a roster of popular classes, the route here has been littered with failures.
In the early days, we held classes where only five people turned up; the curriculum missed the mark; members complained; teachers complained.
These little ‘failures’ felt uncomfortable. But if bruised egos had eclipsed the mission, we would have given up a long time ago.
Instead, we dove into the failures, analysed why they had happened, and fixed the root causes. Now, 40 people turn up; the curriculum is spot on; there are rave reviews.
I learned through this process that any start-up exists because it is trying to achieve product-market fit through a series of experiments. You can be the best experimenter in the world but you still can’t control the results. You can only become better at influencing certain variables and reducing the time it takes you to synthesise the results into an action plan.
Progress will often look like a lot of failures and you learn what doesn’t work in order to get to what does.
This advice has really helped me: “Lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at you” (David Brinkley). I love the approach of using hard, uncomfortable material as the base upon which you build the thing you set out to create in the first place.
Here are my five top tips on fighting failure and getting back on your feet:
- Learn to get comfortable with failing fast and smart by adopting the mantra that “success is merely the hangover of failure” (Marc Ecko).
- Keep a journal or blog to record results from past experiments, but ultimately keep your focus on the future. Don’t spend so long looking back that you forget to move forward.
- Surround yourself with positive, like-minded supporters who challenge you to focus on the lessons gained as opposed to fixating on the opportunities lost.
- Take time to reflect on quarterly or annual milestones with a neutral third party — this can help you to recognise that the painful periods are the ones in which you grew exponentially.
- Always try to address the root cause of failure. As Warren Buffett said, “Should you find yourself in a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.”
Top five sources of information
- The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries. This revolutionary book argues that failure is part of “validated learning” — a product development methodology that embraces business-hypothesis-driven experimentation.
- Why You Don’t Fail When You Fail, by Chris Reed. The founder of beverage company Reed’s Inc talks about why failure can be perceived incorrectly.
- Success Is Merely the Hangover of Failure, by Mark Eckō. The founder of Marc Eckō Enterprises explores how incremental failure can lead to real success.
- Why Success Always Starts With Failure, by Sarah Rapp. An interview and summary of economist and Financial Times columnist Tim Harford’s book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure.
- The power of vulnerability, by Brené Brown. Brené Brown shares a deep insight at a TED event from her research, one that can help us understand ourselves and embrace our humanity.