About a year ago, I left my first start-up after two and a half years of adventure, without having achieved the success I was initially seeking. When I told people about it, they had two reactions: A few congratulated me for the 2 years of hard work and wished me well for my future endeavors. But the bulk of people smirked, told me that that was to be expected, and advised me to find a (proper) corporate job at KPMG. There is a simple explanation for that: In our conservative corporate world, many don’t consider failure a chance to learn from but as a sign of weakness. It’s about time we change that.
The Old-World mentality
Our Western society doesn’t reward failure. Our history books are filled with triumphs and victory celebrations. Defeat and its possible benefits aren’t well documented. In our success-obsessive society, it is not possible to accept failure as a part of a larger development process. It is inherently linked to weakness and mediocrity.
The problem with this demonization of failure is that it often sets the wrong goals. Many entrepreneurs and managers will focus on avoiding failures and mistakes instead of truly seeking paths for game-changing successes. In the modern corporate world, the fear of risk is inherent and it remains a stumbling block to the development of a company. Many employees do not dare to propose new ideas or take risks since the probability of failure is never zero. Great successes come with risks, and big empires were never built within a comfort zone. The fear of failure and therefore change prevails until another generation of entrepreneurs decides to disrupt it.
The Silicon Valley take
When a reporter asked Thomas Edison why his prototype for the light bulb failed 1,000 times before it finally shined, he simply answered: “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” Even though he was based in Newark, far away from the pioneering spirit that had befallen Gold miners in Klondike, he definitely had the right spirit.
“Fail early, fail often” is one of the main mottos of the Valley and it partially explains the success of Californian entrepreneurs. Failure is embraced by entrepreneurs and is celebrated at every occasion, the reason being that failure is a normal milestone in every development process. It’s almost a rite of passage. Venture capitalists and big investors attach great importance to track records with previous failed businesses.
The ability to laugh at failure is a healthy mentality: one that allows talented mover-shakers and fire-starters to keep going after a couple of missteps.
Failing is learning
Max Levchin, former CTO of PayPal once said, “The very first company I started failed with a great bang. The second one failed a little bit less, but still failed. The third one, you know, proper failed, but it was kind of okay. I recovered quickly. Number four almost didn’t fail. It still didn’t really feel great, but it did okay. Number five was PayPal.” The advantage of failing often and fast is that one is able to sample a wide array of concepts, freeing one to explore and test different ideas before coming up with a successful concept. In short: the reason why failure improves us is because it’s a learning process and success is inherently tied to learning.
In any major undertaking, much effort is spent on planning and research. However it is only possible to plan based on known facts and estimations, which will always include variables that aren’t foreseeable, that one is unable to prepare for, and can potentially lead to failure. The trial-and-error method has allowed for the biggest discoveries, since mistakes amount to widening the field of what we are able to expect. Failure is then the only way to reveal weaknesses, as well as the path to strong, long-term growth.
A lesson for society
A few years ago, Iceland went bankrupt. Literally, a whole country collapsed because of a crooked financial system, leading to massive debt and a high unemployment rate. In 2011, the Icelandic president Ólafur Grimsson radically changed the banking system by disrupting processes with the help of engineers, mathematicians and digital experts, thus bringing in a fresh wind of talent and a new mentality.
Grimsson took enormous risks and Iceland’s financial recovery proved him right.
After years of bankruptcy and economic failure, a radically new government took over in Greece, ready to change things based on what they’ve learned from history. This will maybe become another case of improving through having failed before.
Failure can be sustainable, and it creates the greatest entrepreneurs and visionaries. It’s about time that modern managers admit mistakes, stop with the blame game, and see failure as the learning opportunity it truly is.