Six ways to "fail better"

by Contributor14 Feb 2019

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Beckett’s famous words have a nice ring to them. And for a long time, they’ve permeated the wider circles of entrepreneurship as a kind of mantra. 

Failure is necessary. Failure is humbling. Failure is, almost … trendy? 

At least on the outside. Backstage, we scramble hysterically to avoid it at all costs. After all, businesses rely on consistency, predictability, and success – the opposite of failure. 

And let’s be clear. Taking a glib, cavalier attitude toward failure is dangerous. Entrepreneur-turned-venture capitalist Mark Suster argues that the ‘fail fast’ mantra is “wrong, irresponsible, unethical and heartless. Tell that to the person who [gave] you $50,000 of their hard-earned money and entrusted you to try your best. Fail fast?” 

Failure certainly isn’t something to seek out. But it is inevitable. And with the right perspective, it can be transformed into something altogether more positive. 

1. Manage your reaction 
When we hear billionaire moguls like Richard Branson or Jeff Bezos wax lyrical about the benefits of failure, what they really mean is this: As an entrepreneur, you need to be prepared to experiment, to take risks that don’t always pay off. 

What matters isn’t whether you manage to avoid failure altogether, but how you react to it when it does. We can let failure drag us down. Or we can let it shape us. 

Here’s the thing: growth and comfort cannot coexist. And when we fail, something inside us inevitably changes. And by embracing that feeling of change instead of fearing it, we can use it to our advantage. 

Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, discusses this sensation in his book, Principles: “I call the pain that comes from looking at yourself and others objectively ‘growing pains,’ because it is the pain that accompanies personal growth. No pain, no gain.” 

It’s no coincidence that the most successful people have also failed the most: Richard Branson saw Virgin cola, cars and wedding dresses crash and burn. James Dyson made 5,127 unsuccessful prototypes. Thomas Edison tried over 1,000 patents. Even Jeff Bezos endured the spectacular flops of Amazon Auctions and Amazon Z. 

Did they seek out failure? No. But they took an experimental approach that ultimately led to incredible achievement amongst the failures. 

2. Have a light touch 
Some ideas look fantastic on paper and then nosedive. Others seem like flash-in-the-pan madness and then go on to make millions. Basically, it’s impossible to predict how your market, circumstances and customers will change. As entrepreneur Paul Graham once remarked, “You haven’t really started working on [your idea] till you’ve launched.” 

When you devote a ton of energy, time and money to something, you develop a strong sense of ownership toward it. It becomes your baby, a little seedling of hope. Naturally, it’s hard to let go of. But attachment clouds judgment. It causes smart entrepreneurs to cling to ideas well past their sell-by date, hoping for a sudden return on investment. 

The prospect of failure takes on a very different form when it’s not costing anyone their money, their time or their sanity. So start projects with a light touch and an open mind. I can vouch for this approach: JotForm started as a pressure-free side project, which meant I could test it as a fun hypothesis rather than a serious source of income. 

Learn to be hyper-frugal with time, finances and resources, at least in the early stages of a venture. Then if it flops, it’s less of an ego blow and more of a learning curve. Plus, testing quickly and cheaply gives you scope to try a different, better idea. Soon. 

3. View rock bottom as a foundation 
Travis Kalanick’s first startup declared bankruptcy before he founded Uber. Oprah Winfrey was fired from her job as a reporter before she became a household name. Steve Jobs was forced out of Apple before making a glorious comeback. When we see people doing incredible things, we forget they often started from nothing – or worse. 

We see rock bottom as a conclusion. But if you look at it from another angle, it’s a foundation. That’s because falling down – however humiliating it may feel — has positive side effects. It forces us to start fresh. It breeds humility. 

Failure simplifies by process of elimination. It removes excess noise and hurdles, giving way to greater movement. Another consequence of failure is total freedom. With nowhere else to fall, we can let go. 

Losing everything should never be glorified. But we must remember that we can build from the ground up. 

4. Endure your limitations 
Failure hurts because it strips away. But when we’re left with the bare bones of an idea, something magical can happen. We’re forced to endure limitations and do more with less. 

It’s easy to assume that more is more – more money, more support, more time – but in reality, a sense of abundance can be treacherous. 

In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz points out how backward our thinking is. He explains that, despite modern culture’s obsession with freedom of choice, more choice equals less action: “Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard … But by restricting our options, we will be able to choose less and feel better.” 

Having too many options is paralyzing. Instead, working with the bare minimum streamlines. It clarifies. It lets us see clearly. Limitations drive resourcefulness and fuel inspiration. Learn to see them as a blessing, not a curse. 

5. Know when to be flexible and when to persist 
Every successful person has had moments of self-doubt but persevered. Grit and determination – even in the face of brutal setbacks – are crucial to realizing an ambition. But equally, “never give up” is terrible advice. It’s just as important to know when to pivot, adjust or bow out altogether. 

So how do you know when to stick with it and when to quit? Author James Clear suggests you identify your ‘non-negotiable’: the one thing you are not willing to budge on, no matter what. Then, lose the obsession with everything apart from this. 

It’s easy to get attached to a particular version of an idea. And if it doesn’t pan out the way you’d expected or planned, you might feel tempted to give up. For instance, your non-negotiable could be running a profitable business. But there are thousands of ways to achieve this that don’t follow the conventional trajectory; you just need to be open-minded. I like Jeff Bezos’ mindset for Amazon: “We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details.” 

So you might accept defeat on a version of your idea, but that doesn’t mean you need to quit. You’ve just gone slightly off-script. Get up, dust yourself off and try a different version. 

Once you change your perspective on this, you’ll be able to see mishaps as interchangeable details rather than abject failures. If you believe what you have is worth showing to the world, endurance matters. If you try once to get a ball in a hoop, it’s likely not to go in. If you try a hundred times, it will. 

Persistence increases your odds of success. So be resolute in your non-negotiable. Stick with it. And be open to getting everything else wrong. 

6. Failure delivers knowledge 
According to a 2016 article published in the Harvard Business Review, of the main reasons companies struggle to grow is due to fear of failure; risk-averse working cultures are blamed for lack of innovation. But failure is impossible to avoid. And by identifying where things went wrong, we can extract extreme value from tricky experiences. 

Failure shouldn’t be underestimated, but it shouldn’t be feared, either. Because mistakes are an opportunity to adapt, learn and grow. Ed Catmull, Pixar’s president, agrees: “Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new … and should be seen as valuable.” 

Track and measure projects from the beginning. If things don’t work out, you’ll have a clear indicator as to why. Crystalize these insights. Look for patterns. Develop a formula to follow next time round. Reflect on positives, too. Ask for feedback and share your thoughts. 

There’s so much to be learned about ourselves and others if we can push past the discomfort of examining our failures. Worst-case scenario, we make sure it doesn’t happen again. Best-case scenario, we gain knowledge we can apply to other areas of our life. 

It takes guts to stick with a venture through thick and thin. But it takes just as much courage, if not more, to know when to duck out, conduct a post-mortem and move on. We shouldn’t glorify failure. But we should celebrate the resilience it takes to bounce back. 

Growth occurs alongside discomfort. Boredom and frustration are the foundations of incremental improvement. And sometimes you need to go back to move forward. In other words, what feels like failure is often success in disguise. 

Aytekin Tank is founder and CEO of JotForm, an online form creation software with 4 million users worldwide and more than 100 employees. A developer by trade but writer by heart, Tank shares stories about how he exponentially grew his company without receiving any outside funding. For more information, visit jotform.com.

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