How to Fail Your Way to Success
“Failure is success in progress” ― Albert Einstein
Entrepreneurs are enthusiastic and serial failers.
Entrepreneurs seem to be constantly looking for solutions and alternative ways of doing everything. And crucially, they don’t give a damn about failure, because they know that failure is, in fact, discovery. Some have declared, “The only way I will know if something works is by doing it and that means doing what seems impossible or unlikely.”
Entrepreneurs are comfortable with failure, almost enjoying it.
This is because every experience, positive or negative tells you something. If you are working in a specific area of expertise, which you are likely to be, tech, law, medicine, marketing, for example, your experiences of doing will become a rich mixture of interconnected successes and failures.
The very act of doing will develop, over time, a focussed and overall understanding of your area which will be unrivalled by those simply thinking about it, or, dare I say it, studying it.
The learning gleaned from action is called tacit knowledge.
As Michael Polanyi (1967: 4) wrote in The Tacit Dimension, we should start from the fact that “we can know more than we can tell.”
For that reason, I am skeptical about business plans.
These plans are mostly not worth the paper they are written on. On the one hand a business plan seems to be leading people down a deceptive path of fantasy and disaster. Yet, on the other hand, business plans can be very dangerous, stopping people from doing anything at all.
The business plan is a blueprint for the financials and can give basic indications of whether what you are thinking of is even worth doing at all. The problem is that these business plans often stop you from employing the basic trial and error methodology adopted by most the most successful entrepreneurs and stable businesses. The tradition business plan rarely reflects reality, particularly in a start-up situations.
We don’t always do what we say we will, in fact, we often don’t do that at all. We reach for convenient existing theories of business to explain things and business plans are usually formulaic and poor imaginings for the needed action: go talk to the customer stupid. Get a mentor; learn more about your subject.
There is a tendency to direct start-ups in developed countries into incubation centers.
These centers are usually run by state enterprises whom, with the best of intentions, actually cosset the fledgling enterprise from the realities of the commercial world, and in doing so, prevent the very essential learning that is so necessary to develop a real sustainable and gritty business model.
There is a toughness and street-wise element to successful enterprise. These successes will not be created in comfortable shiny offices with too many people sitting around chatting in the cafeteria, at the water cooler or even in meetings, wondering where the customers are.
Enterprisers with the experience of — learning by doing — will often say that your mistakes cost you money, and that ensures you don’t make them twice. Richard Branson advises you to “pick yourself up, brush yourself off, don’t let your ego get the better of you.” In other words: get over it — and quickly.
Go ahead, feel bad for failing. You should feel lousy, and that bad feeling is good for your business. Studies now show that you will be less likely to repeat the same error twice.
In a recent study, Dr Selin Malkoc from Ohio State University said, “All the advice tells you not to dwell on your mistakes, to not feel bad. But we found the opposite.”
“When faced with a failure, it is better to focus on one’s emotions — when people concentrate on how bad they feel and how they don’t want to experience these feelings again, they are more likely to try harder the next time.”
Failure has been acknowledged by successful people from Steve Jobs to Bill Gates for helping them achieve their final success.
Irish playwright Samuel Beckett is quoted as saying, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again.”
It is probably worth seeing yourself as an “experimenter” in the business world. Consider that the enterprises you undertake or take on as a business are often experiments to see if your ideas are correct when faced with reality. In some ways the pioneers of electric cars and autonomous vehicles are yet to see whether their enormous experiments will work when the market decides.
In business, failure is the customer telling you to go back to the shed and iterate one more time.
Vitally, the secret is surviving the various events that make up success. Therefore it is important to minimize the downside. If you are going to get it wrong, make sure that you won’t fall too far and that you can pick yourself up and get on with it, one more time. Don’t over-commit to a line of action that will destroy your future financial freedom to change, or iterate again on your idea. Refrain from committing yourself personally to long lease contracts, for instance.
James Dyson is definitely the king of failure — 5,126 of them to be exact. That is the number of prototypes he developed over the course of 10 to 15 years before releasing his iconic bag-less vacuum in 1993. The upright domestic model, DC01, used the patented “Dual Cyclone” technology. Dyson says his willingness to fail is the reason for his success.
Dyson said, “The failure is the starting point, because when something fails, you understand why it fails. Then you start to think of ideas as to the ways you can overcome that failure. The moral of the tale is keep on failing — It works.”
So go on then and fail away all you like. Keep in mind that your failures are only lessons, after all, and crucially, it is the only way you are ever going to find out. After many failures, when you finally find out you’ve got it right, you will have failed your way to success.
Originally published at readwrite.com, by Owen O’Brien, on January 17, 2019.