The F Word: Why the Secret of Success Is All About Learning How to Fail

The F Word: Why the Secret of Success Is All About Learning How to Fail

Over the last few years, the science of success has focused on understanding the role that failure plays in innovation. While there are detractors who think that words like “Fail Fast, Fail Often,” are just a motivational meme for bad business, most people have been able to quickly understand why failure is such a valuable tool. The challenge, however, is getting people to realize that there’s a right way and a wrong way to fail.

Recognize That Failure Is Necessary for Growth

Let’s face it: failure isn’t fun. It can be painful, embarrassing, and it certainly feels non-productive at the time. But it’s the fear of failure, not failure itself, that ultimately sucks away your energy and your willingness to take risks. Twitter bird icon

Think of a business failure as the equivalent of getting knocked down at a Taekwondo class. You certainly don’t expect to walk out on the martial arts studio floor and move like Bruce Lee your first day at the dojo.

If you want to get good at the sport, you’ll have to spend some time learning how to take a blow the right way without getting seriously hurt in the process. Every fall that you take on the mat is a micro-failure that teaches you not to be afraid of falling in the first place. Eventually, you get over your fear of getting hit and you can concentrate on learning the moves that will improve your skills.

Essentially, the first lesson of success is the same no matter what your endeavor: getting over your fear of failure is critical if you want to put your energies where they’ll help you grow. Failure is both an inevitable and necessary part of the process that every business, service, or product goes through from the time that the original idea is formed until a successful end result is achieved.

Once you understand that, learning the right way to fail becomes a lot easier.

First: Separate Failure from Blame

Companies like Pixar have changed the corporate culture’s attitude toward failure by separating its pain from its benefits. This keeps employees from being driven to avoid failure (or worse, hide it until it becomes a crisis).

If you divide failure up into a spectrum with preventable, predictable failures on one end and experimental, “trial and error” type failures on the other, you can develop a standard by which to judge failures as either worthy of blame or praise or a mix of both.

For example, if you were goofing off and putting no effort into quality assurance, go ahead and assign yourself blame for your product’s failure. Putting out a product that’s going to fall apart is a predictable, preventable model for failure. However, if you really believed that there was a market for something and it turned out that there just wasn’t enough interest in it to make it profitable to produce, that may be an innovative, experimental failure.

The more innovative failures that you have, the faster that you’re going to learn. Twitter bird icon Essentially, you treat each failure as a data point of information, and then you look at that information and determine what you can use in your next project or attempt at a viable product.

Second: Expose Yourself to Criticism Early

The traditional entrepreneur mindset has always been to take the product or service and get it practically perfect before you expose it to the market. Then, market it with everything you’ve got and don’t give up until you’re out of time, energy, and money (mostly money).

That’s a waste.

By putting something on the market that you see as being in near “finished state,” you’re forcing yourself into a situation where you have to pour your money into marketing in order to convince your customers that what you’re offering is what they want or need, rather than letting your customers tell you if it’s actually either of those things.

Instead, try putting out a product that’s about half right, acknowledge that it’s imperfect, and then let your customers tell you what you’re doing wrong. Twitter bird icon Your customers aren’t emotionally invested in the issue (unlike you) but they are invested in the outcome, because they have an opportunity to get something that they want that will fulfill one or more of their needs. Your customers have zero incentive to pull their punches when they tell you what’s wrong with your idea and a great deal to gain from suggesting ways that you can improve.

Third: Let Yourself Get Pushed Around

Video game manufacturers do this all the time in beta testing, where they offer incomplete, roughed-out versions of their games and let the gamers find the glitches, offer improvements and suggest ideas for everything from character costumes to weaponry. Network studios offer pilots for virgin programs and wait to see what test audiences think before they change characters, change actors or change storylines.

By offering a product that you know is flawed and expect to change, you can spend a lot less time in development before you put your product or service on the market for customers to critique.

By letting your customers drive the resulting changes, you also get the advantage of reducing the uncertainty that each development is taking you further away from delivering an end product that the customer wants. That’s what will ultimately make you successful in whatever it is you do.

Where personal or professional growth is concerned, fear, personal ego, and an inability to learn from micro-failures are your enemies. Twitter bird icon You can take the safe road and always do what you’ve done before, but that will eventually lead to stagnation and a much more final failure when your business can no longer compete in an ever-changing world.

Maggie Black
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Maggie Black is a freelance writer, biographer, editor and mixed-media artist. She absolutely loves what she does for a living and occasionally gets out of her pajamas (for public appearances only).