Failure? Mistake? Lesson?

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An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field. — Niels Bohr

In recent years it’s become a business truism that failure is a path to success. The idea is that if you’re having failures you’re trying lots of things — tossing stuff against the wall to see what sticks — which should lead eventually to something that pays off big time. (In Silicon Valley this attitude is quite popular, as high-tech startups are especially iffy.)

There’s a problem with this notion: it isn’t exactly true. Owners whose first businesses fail are unlikely to try again. The collapse of a cherished enterprise can crush the first-timer. These failures destroy capital, upend job security and ruin reputations.

Just thinking about such scenarios can make a business owner’s heart rate go into overdrive.

But maybe we’re suffering from a bit of confusion about what people mean by failure. Much of what is called “failure” is simply “mistakes”. When we confuse the two, we hesitate to try things, even small things, for fear we’ll “fail” when often the worst that happens is we learn something useful. If we don’t make this distinction — between mistakes and failures — we’ll freeze up at the little challenges, and eventually our frozen selves shatter against a wall of defeat.

When scientists run an experiment and get a result they weren’t expecting, they don’t consider this “failure”; they think of it as “data”. To them, it’s all interesting. Artists experiment over and over, discarding most of their attempts, as they perfect new paintings or songs or comedy sketches.

Interesting outcomes are just awful outcomes with the volume of drama turned way down. — Elizabeth Gilbert

Nearly everything a business does is made of small steps. Most of these steps are developed through trial and error. Mistakes get made and corrected, and the business moves forward. It’s these little mistakes, not the huge terrible failures, that help us grow stronger and smarter at work. 

• “Take care of the ounces, and the pounds will take care of themselves.” Failures and mistakes are outcomes of risk. Failure comes from big risks; mistakes come from small ones. If we’re undaunted by small risks and we try to learn from them, the odds of long-term success get enhanced. How, then, should we approach risk in general, so as to take advantage of mistakes and avoid failures?

Don’t regard any one project as everything: even your business startup is just a chapter in the history of your career. It’s the career that matters, not its expression today. In fact, entrepreneurs who manage more than one business at a time have higher success rates than “serial” entrepreneurs who only work on one. Of course you’ll put your best effort into every portion of your work. But knowing that no one project can make or break you takes the pressure off, so you’ll make fewer panicky mistakes and suffer fewer failures. 

Don’t take it personally: This one’s hard, especially when we’ve just been brought down by a mistake at work or, worse, a startup failure. At that moment we’re tempted to consider ourselves as failures. But the project failed, not us; just because we made a mistake doesn’t mean we are a mistake.

Do a pre-mortem: Good sales reps anticipate every possible objection from a prospect and prepare strong answers for each. This technique works for any aspect of business. Begin by making a list of all the ways your startup — or just this month’s work project — can go wrong. Then think of several ways to fix each situation. 

Do a post-mortem: This is, of course, a highly useful exercise with projects that implode, but it’s also worthwhile to follow up on any problems you encountered during the roll-out of a winner. Don’t let all the back-slapping and glass-clinking distract you from itemizing the small problems that cropped up, and devising repairs … so they don’t become big problems later.

Keep your eye on the racetrack, not the wall: Professional race car drivers know that if you go into a skid, you mustn’t stare at the oncoming wall but instead focus on where you want to go. This reorients you toward driving instead of crashing, which increases the chances you’ll get out of the jam and continue the race.

Remember that half of all businesses are still in play after five years: It’s a myth that 80 percent of new firms wash out in 12 months. The odds favor you.

…Finally: As a wise man said, do not brace yourself for failure, but ready yourself for fulfillment.



Published by

Jim Hull

Jim Hull graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in philosophy, then spent ten years as a lecture-demonstrator in the performing arts, including tours and TV appearances. More recently, Jim has produced research, copywriting, and editing for numerous clients. He also has published two books: the set of essays ARE HUMANS OBSOLETE? and a novel, THE VAMPIRE IN FREE FALL. Jim teaches classes in current events and music at The Braille Institute in Los Angeles. He applies his unique perspective to create surprising, compelling solutions to difficult problems. Jim thinks the world would work better if people spent less time dominating each other and more time working alongside those with different viewpoints to resolve the challenges we all face. CONTACT JIM: ...

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