Failure is Not Enough

December 11, 2015 | By

When entrepreneurs talk about failure, they treat it like a badge of honor. Bloggers and motivational speakers encourage entrepreneurs and innovators to get out there and fail spectacularly.

In the past, I’ve spoken about my failures with pride, claiming that these failures have made future success possible. However, I’ve come to realize failure is not enough. It’s only part of the process. We need to learn from failure and apply the lessons learned. We need to control when and how we fail. It’s possible, but it’s not easy.

First, we need to stop fetishizing failure, especially in hindsight when we talk about greatness.

Take for example, the greatest basketball player of all time: Michael Jordan. In 1997, while Jordan was at the top of his game and seeking his second 3-peat, Nike aired this commercial:

This ad makes you feel good. It’s inspiring. We draw the simple conclusion: If Jordan’s unparalleled career was marked by so many disappointing moments, failure must be an ingredient of success, of greatness. We should emulate this willingness to fail and accept failure’s inevitability.

This is deceptive logic — half-true, but incomplete. Jordan’s celebrated failures are just a law of averages. No one makes every shot. No one wins every time. Jordan’s greatness wasn’t determined by his past failures, but by the moments when he didn’t fail — those crucial championship-clinching opportunities in the playoffs.

The real lesson here is that Jordan’s failures motivated him to become better, to practice harder, to study the tape, to learn why he had failed. Willingness to fail only gets you so far. Failure and mistakes are not inherently valuable. Failure is not inherently a lesson.

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Learning from failure is the hard part. It involves picking yourself up, evaluating your mistakes and miscalculations, and accepting blame. Often, we create narratives that help us explain failure: I picked the wrong market. I picked the wrong target audience. Our execution was flawed. We didn’t have a good enough user experience. We didn’t do enough research about competitors.

These are just surface reasons for failure. In hindsight, they will seem obvious and reasonable. However, these are just the things we’d do differently if we had the chance to do it all again. These are not the valuable lessons of failure. The lessons need to go much deeper.

We fail because we’re human. We fail because we’re flawed — full of pride and hubris. We’re all the stars of our own Greek tragedies. We make wild assumptions and overestimate our own skills. We have inflated egos and think we can succeed where others have failed. We think we can go it alone. We fail because of our cognitive biases — our blind spots that keep use from seeing things as they really are.

These are the lessons of failure. We may have picked the wrong market and that lead to our failure, but the lesson isn’t just knowing the right market next time. The lesson is understanding why we allowed ourselves to pick the wrong market. Why did we make assumptions that didn’t get tested? Why did we assume our choice was correct? Was it pride? Was it passion overruling common sense?

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At Firefield, we are advocates of a lean approach to entrepreneurial endeavors because the lean approach attempts to get failure out of the way early and often. It accounts for us being human and allows us to test assumptions with validated learning. It minimizes guess work and waste because it welcomes failure without being over-invested in the outcomes. It lets failures determine the path forward, not the other way around.

So, by all means, go out there and fail, but make sure you’re welcoming it — embracing it to account for your flaws in judgement, for the blind spots in your vision, for the feeling in your gut. Take failure personally. Let it drive you. And know that no one else can fail for you — not Steve Jobs, not Michael Jordan — because learning from failure doesn’t result in a series of bullet points for future reference, but it actually changes the content of your character.

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