Disclaimer: I probably use a derivative of the word failure 25–30 times throughout the post, noted.
Failure is terrible.
It’s true, failing flat out sucks. There are few things more heart wrenching in life than seeing yourself or your company flop. All of that time and money, kicked out the curb and gone to waste. But who wants to read about that? That would make for one boring story because let’s face it, everyone fails every once in a while. Luckily, that is not the complete reality. Indeed, there is more.
Failing is not the worst thing that can happen to you.
But before I begin to argue pro-failing, let’s get things straight. I do not believe that failing is a great thing. There is no need for me to hype up the act of failing as a positive. I do not see a need to parade around and celebrate my failures. But I do believe that understanding the process of failure is crucial because failure is inevitable. Though, is there something worse than failing?
In the American school system, a 57 is an F and a 75 is the average, a C. A C allows you to pass the class while F prohibits you from moving on. One, demoralizing, the other, satisfactory. Though, I argue that failing is more beneficial than scoring in the average.
The reality of life is that it is impossible to always finish at the top. There will be a situation where you lie to the left of the 99th percentile. But how bad is bad and what do we consider to be a failure? Failure has always been under 60 percent, at least that is how we define it in school. Failing in middle school meant having to stay 15 minutes past the bell to relaunch my baking soda & vinegar bottle rocket. In high school, it meant missing the homecoming weekend to redo my physics lab. And now, in college, it meant missing the party of the semester to retype my Writing 1 essay.
Sad? Yes. Agonizing? No.
Throughout my 15 years of formal schooling I never had an opportunity to accept and admit defeat in the classroom. I place that blame, for the most part, on the structure of schooling. The nature of schooling breeds mediocrity. Students are curtailed and incentivized to compress towards the average on assignments, projects, and tests. In middle school, teachers reward students who have just passing grades with shiny stickers. In high school, the principal honors students who maintained above a 2.0 GPA with a noble seat at graduation. And in college, administration gratifies students with credits as long as they maintain test averages above failure.
This process fosters average people who get average grades. Students work hard to simply fall above the arbitrary pass-fail line. People rather pass, barely, than admit defeat. Passing allows you to get credits, avoid embarrassment, and graduate. What does failing get you? So then I ask the question:
65% & shiny sticker or 59% & F? Choose the latter.
I want to be an outlier. Outliers learn the most and progress the fastest.
Recognizing failure is a vital part of an individual’s journey towards self actualization and development. Failing is essential to growth. “You’ll struggle to find a great invention that wasn’t preceded by a series of failures.” Of course, not all failures are created equal. People fail for all sorts of reasons: laziness, priorities, effort, incomprehension, and critical errors. Errors rooted back to internal motivation do not have as much to learn from. Rather, it is best to fail at things you can not prevent without having experience. These are the biggest life lessons.
So why then do we stop people from failing early on? Why do we condition people to evade defeat, even just barely? Why do we hold them right above the water until we release them into the real world? All questions that I asked in my investigation of failure. I came to a conclusion.
It takes people way too damn long to learn to admit defeat.
Mediocrity is inbred in our society. The shiny stickers, stable office jobs, and external support provide the perfect amount of comfort for an average civilization. But we need to be moving in one direction or the other. It is impossible to tread forever. I argue that the school system does a poor job of teaching students the proper way to fail as well as how to improve. But why in school?
We all should have failed more in school.
Looking back, we all should have failed, perhaps more often in school. The time and setting are ideal. Not only in the classroom, but in everything that we chose to do around this time. Whether it was theatre, sports, clubs, or classes; the activities in high school made the perfect failing ground. The consequences were minimal and the only thing in jeopardy was our social standing for the day. I wanted to reiterate: I am not only talking about a little failure, moreso a good fail that was a result of something we really wanted. If only I understood this sooner.
What I learned from failing in business.
Outside of the classroom, failure has really real consequences. Stickers are replaced withpink slips as people lose their livelihoods due to shortcomings. In the business world, a 75 percent (average) means absolutely nothing. “Earning” a 75 percent from your work will cost you 100 percent of the job. That simple concept took me two years and potentially thousands of dollars to truly digest. The only way to understand this is to live through it in experiences. But as you enter the real business world, these experiences become more expensive, draining crucial time and money.
Screw up as early as possible.
Fail as early and as quickly as possible. Do not wait too long for it to stick to your skin, you should rip it off like a bandaid. This applies to both in the formal learning environment as well as in business development.
I define this as a fail loop: the period between starting something and reaching inevitable failure.
Those that are able to tighten this loop the fastest are at an extreme advantage. Tighter fail loops make for faster learning. Developing this is not easy, but those who do it well are best off.
The Example of Facebook
We all know the story and saw the movie about how Mark Zuckerberg built one of the most powerful companies in the world from his Harvard dorm room. The conception is a bit murky, but we know the players supposedly involved. The two sides: Zuckerberg, a technical wiz, and the wealthy Winklevoss twins, well connected and 6 foot 5 inches a piece. What we know today: Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook is still around the Winklevosses have no product. Both teams started with a simple idea: connect students at Harvard online. Zuckerberg’s product evolved more quickly because he could reach the state of failure faster and earlier than the twins. Zuckerberg’s technical abilities saved him time and money on outsourcing the work. He could more quickly test his assumptions on his product, learn from his customers, and iterate over that cycle. The Winklevosses were stuck in the 75 percent range, with an idea soon to be taken over by multiple big-time competitors.
This example parallels the stories of many founders around the world racing to be the first to produce the best product in an emerging market. Broadly speaking, there are two types of founders. Those that build their incredible idea and those that build customers’ incredible ideas. The former is more often afraid to chance his idea as a failure whereas the latter welcomes defeat. The founders that learn the most about their customers by testing their assumptions turn to be the most successful because they are able to prevent failures in the future.
So what did I take from this concept?
I will repeat what I said early on: failing is never your goal. But, as I hope I have demonstrated, it is better to fail outright and learn than to get stuck in between two arbitrary guidelines, while never admitting defeat.
And so, I present my failures…And I think I learned a thing or two from doing this. Hope this was not a complete failure, or maybe I don’t.
Try and make your own, you may learn something as well.
Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org