Let’s Talk About Failure
The paradox of entrepreneurship is that you can’t succeed without maximal effort, but you can also give everything you have and still fail. Holding those two realities in your head — “I won’t succeed unless I give it my all,” “Giving it my all doesn’t mean I’ll succeed” — can make you a little crazy. Or maybe you have to be a little crazy to handle that dissonance. I’m not really sure.
But I do know that failing is a very hot topic among people who start companies and the people who invest in them. Is it categorically good to fail? Or is there a difference between good failure and bad failure? Are we fetishizing failure? What are the costs of failing? How do we bounce back after it inevitably happens?Are we fetishizing failure? What are the costs of failing? How do we bounce back after it inevitably happens?
In This Week In Ideas, we’re taking a tour of the failure literature. Strap in and get your clicking finger ready.
“In the United States, talking about failure is something of a cottage industry,” a New Yorker writer notes in a piece titled, “Fail Fast, Fail Often, Fail Everywhere.”
“The type of failure we’re talking about is like how frogs lay 20,000 eggs so a few wind up as adults sitting on a lily pad sucking down mosquito dinners,” explains a Newsweek scribe. That makes it sound almost like you have to fail. “Wanna create a great product? Fail early, fail fast, fail often,” a FastCo writer advises in a piece about prototyping new products. “Fail by design,” echoes a writer at the Harvard Business Review.Entrepreneurs almost can’t help but fail, Y Combinator’s Paul Graham told NPR, because “one way or another, practically all startups internally are disasters.” “If you’re not willing to…experience failure, you’re never going to figure out what the right path is to success.” – Dave McClure
But that’s not why Dave McClure, who runs the incubator 500 Startups, almost named his company “fail factory.” Rather, he says getting it wrong is essential to getting it right: “Being able to figure out what people hate and turn that into what people love…if you’re not willing to take the risk of failing and not experience failure, you’re never going to figure out what the right path is to success.”
But the startup world is not of one mind when it comes to messing up. “Failure has become too much of a badge of honor in this country,” Jeffrey Hayzlett writes in Entrepreneur. “Learning from failure is overrated,” Basecamp founder Jason Fried declared in 2009 (failing has been cool for a while, it seems).Startups’ love of failure is “mostly lip service, while they scramble hysterically to avoid failure at all costs.” – Rob Asghar
Meanwhile, Rob Asghar at Forbes suggests that the startup scene’s love of failure is “mostly lip service, while they scramble hysterically to avoid failure at all costs.”
Whether you should strive to fail is less important than knowing how to bounce back when you inevitably do. For tips on how, we spoke to Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle about her book The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success. But lest we stand accused of treating the topic as purely academic, we also spoke to someone who failed hard — and did not bounce back! — about what he learned.
Have a good failure story? Send it our way!