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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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