Startup culture is famous for its apparent celebration of failure. But for entrepreneurs, failing is important, and shutting up about it isn’t going to help anybody. So, what do we do with it?
Failure gets a bad rap
Celebrating failure is something that startup culture is renowned for. But in the past couple of years, it’s also gotten some bad rap. Business Insider argues that it’s not failure that should be celebrated, it’s the learning. Teague Hopkins agrees that failure without learning is just failure. There are pieces at NextBigWhat and British Airways, commentary in everything from international education program providers to blogs on Medium, to the almighty Copyblogger.
Failure, they contend, is expensive. It’s fashionable now. We focus on it too much, we overdo it, in some cases we strive for it. True, but it doesn’t mean that we have to stop talking about it.
The reality is, a society that shuns failure and stops making failure acceptable also tends to discourage innovation. It’s a fine line between acceptance and fear.
Walk the talk: Yes, I’ve failed
If you’re going to write about failure (it's good or it's bad) then it helps if you’ve failed. I sure have. In one or two cases, I've failed hard. Let’s be clear here that failing hard for me is not the oft-celebrated riches-to-rags story of Silicon Valley.
I'm talking losing thousands - not millions - of dollars, and years of hard work. It’s the stuff of which hardened nightmares are made. Loss of self, loss of stuff, loss of friends, loss of relationships, epic career downgrade (to rank-and-file call centre work). It’s starting again when you’re already 30. If I wasn’t such a positive person, I might have gotten depressed by it. Instead, I worked hard to accept it, to move on, to learn.
Failure teaches you things that nothing else can teach you
If an entrepreneur who admits to failure crosses my path, a little part of me celebrates. The bigger the failure, the more I smile. It's not because other people’s misery is exciting. It's because they've learned things that nothing else on earth could have taught them. In failing, you learn why the things you were ignoring were actually important.
Even people who appear not to have learned have still had to confront things about themselves that they wouldn't otherwise have faced. Maybe they've repeated some mistakes because the mistakes weren't big red flags yet. Maybe they chose to have their eyes closed.
Fearless leaping isn’t the same as knowing how far you will fall
People who haven't failed have had fewer occasions on which to look deeply into themselves and understand their motivations. They can appear arrogant, even cocksure, about what they're doing.
Sure, fearlessness is awesome. Better is knowing how far you will fall before you hit the bottom. That way, when you do leap, you do so knowingly. You don’t know until you do it that nine times out of ten, your friends will catch you.
Failing creates strong, wise people
It’s quite likely that those of us who talk about failure in an excited way do so because of what it taught us. It doesn’t mean that the pain is any less; it doesn’t mean that the experience is any gentler. The understanding you come to is that screwing things up isn’t a diversion from your journey, it’s part of it.
This is why those who have failed do tend to be strong, compassionate, loving people.
The oft-celebrated Australian cofounder and co-CEO at Vinomofo Andre Eikmeier has a perspective on life that comes from having screwed up a lot. That is, that you can't keep seeking an end point at the expense of your life. That dissatisfaction comes from not living right now, and the more you yearn for some goal way out in front of you, the less satisfied you will be.
It's time to shift the conversation
To those of you who haven’t failed:
- Be aware that it’s hard to deal with a rough road if you’ve never been on one.
- Understand that failing fast can also mean failing really hard.
- Know that learning is personal but failure isn't - make sure you lean the lesson that nothing else can teach you.
For the rest of us, perhaps it's time to shift the conversation. Our startups are competitive, sure. But the debate doesn't need to have that same flavor. Perhaps, instead of Fail Vs Success the debate ought to be about Courage.