Using failure as a way to succeed

Rob Walker

Kai Ryssdal: So long as you learn from your mistakes, it's OK, right? That's what people say, isn't it?

Commentator Rob Walker says, baloney.

Rob Walker: The other day I read an interview with an entrepreneur who was not only bragging about his successes -- he was bragging about his failures. Specifically he was talking up the virtues of "fast failure." This means quickly deducing that a new venture won't work. Then you absorb those lessons and, of course, move on to do the next thing. Apparently this is the best kind of failure, and if you can't do it then you are failing at failure itself.

The good news, if you're looking to brush up on your failure skills, is that not-succeeding is a hot topic these days. The Harvard Business Review recently devoted an issue to failure, and various other magazines, books, and even a batch of online videos featuring celebrated advertising and design stars, make various cases for successful failure -- fail faster, fail smarter, fail often to succeed sooner, fail forward, and so on.

At the heart of this failure chic is the argument that all your business and creative heroes experienced failure on the road to innovation. That's true, although so did all the cranks you've never heard of -- on the road to even more failure and total obscurity.

Much of failure's recent trendiness can be chalked up to the familiar need to believe in marketplace rationality -- a flop simply must be the result of some correctable misstep, as opposed to chance or someone else's mistakes or any other factor beyond our control. But consider the failure of "Moby Dick." The only lesson in that for Herman Melville boils down to: Everybody else was wrong. Unfortunately for him, this insight came many decades after his death.

Of course there are times when we learn from failure, and that leads to innovation. But to frame failure as practically an accomplishment is to forget that all those business and creative heroes ultimately learned how to avoid it, overcome it, and most of all, defy it against all odds. Even that entrepreneur I was reading about must know this is so. Despite his enthusiasm for fast failure, it was a different idea that topped the list of reasons he offered for his success: perseverance.

Ryssdal: Rob Walker is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine. Send us your comments -- click on contact.

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I deduced from his commentary that Mr. Walker has never undertaken any entrepreneurial venture himself, and so the value of failure is perhaps lost upon him. I agree that the notion of "fast failure" is a bit ridiculous, and while on its face true, you would never want to be involved with an entrepreneur who is looking only for "fast failure", but you also don't want to be involved with someone that hasn't failed at anything. First, because they are probably lying because we have all failed at something in life, and, second, because learning involves failure. Especially for entrepreneurs, if you have to put it all on the line, you have to be able to make mistakes, adjust, learn, and move past them. "Perseverance" is a mix of belief in your goals and learning from your mistakes. And, Herman Melville did have the last laugh after all, didn't he?

I recently read a review of Matthew Crawford's new book 'The Case For Working With Your Hands', and this sentence struck me as being particularly true (and peculiarly resonant in my job as a professional dog trainer): "...much of what distinguishes people who are [mechanical] is that they're willing to undergo the experience of unambiguous failure."
It seems to me that, in a "knowledge economy" many people have become either unable to distinguish between success and failure, or unwilling to accept the possibility of unambiguous failure. And what intervenes, in either case, is a great deal of psychology, and verbiage. And naturally this presents a marketing opportunity. When it comes down to it, there's a more subtle difference than you'd think between succeeding at a thing and having an excuse for not succeeding. Failure seminars, anyone?

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