“At least I tried!” is the cry of a loser. The world is full of losers, so why do you want to be one too?
Lately you might have decided to join the chorus of losers who worship failure in the name of entrepreneurship, startups, innovation, or whatever. If you find yourself saying, “what do you mean? I thought failure was good in the startup world!” then you may have been infected by the failure virus.
I don’t know if there is a cure, but you can at least treat the symptoms.
Let me preface all of this by saying that my own life has been full of failure. I have succeeded at things only to see them fail later, and I know that every victory is potentially just one step this side of a new defeat. I have been infected with the failure virus before, and I have at different times endured every one if the symptoms I’m about to describe. Failure is a necessary part of any life well lived, and nobody who ever achieved greatness ever did so without great failures beforehand. But I don’t want to keep failing, and I don’t want you to either.
Great people were not great because of their failures — they were great because they eventually overcame them.
So, how do you know if you’re infected with the failure virus? There are 5 tell-tale signs.
1. You Start with the Expectation of Failure (and think it’s ok…)
“Well, if I fail, at least I’ll learn something!”
The worst thing you can do when starting anything is to give yourself permission before you even begin. In my musical training when I was younger, I remember being told repeatedly by one of my instructors “how you practice is how you will perform.” This was an encouragement not to just fiddle around, but to take practice seriously — good posture, perfect technique, don’t allow yourself any errors. If you make a mistake, you stop and correct it, go back, repeat until perfect.
I cannot imagine going to my teacher and saying “listen to this wrong note I played! It taught me so much.”
This doesn’t mean you should treat every new endeavor as a life or death matter — that would be to completely misunderstand my advice. Instead, what I suggest is to treat everything you start or attempt as form of practice for success.
Every blog post you write is practicing for that Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal or that piece in the Atlantic you’ve always dreamed of writing. Every pitch is practicing for the time you’re called for an interview at Y Combinator. Every line of code is practice for when Andreesen Horowitz funds your startup and it really is do or die.
The dedication to excellence in everything you do is the opposite of a failure mentality. Good practice is the opposite of a failure mentality. Of course mistakes will happen. Of course from time to time everything will blow up in your face. But don’t look at the bright side. Don’t pat yourself on the back for the failure. Congratulate yourself for getting back up and persevering.
You don’t need permission to fail. You only need give yourself permission to try again. Over and over and over until you’ve forgotten what failure tastes like.
2. You Quit in the Last Mile of the Marathon
“It wasn’t meant to be this time, there will be another opportunity!”
This is a special manifestation of the fallacy that “the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.” You think to yourself that this particular moment isn’t the one you were really meant to have and there will be plenty more. It’s one thing to realize that you can try again after you have failed and there’s no recovering the situation, but it’s something else entirely to get to the most difficult stage of a journey and start thinking about finding a new one already.
This is as true in startups as it in relationships. I realized I was prone to this kind of thinking one day when analyzing the way I played the computer game Civilization (by the way — almost for sure the number of hours you spend playing Civilization is negatively correlated with success). I caught myself re-starting my game in the early stages of play if I wasn’t able to get the big early lead that made the game so enjoyable, and that if I was bogged down at the ¾ mark, I would also quit and start a new one. When I understood that I was doing this subconsciously in computer games, I knew that I was probably doing it in the rest of my life too.
We always hear about the failure rate of startups in the early stage. The reason most startups fail is that they are bullshit ideas usually being carried by bullshit people. But I think the failure rate that would be more interesting to study is that of the “last” stage, the breakover point from barely surviving to thriving. I bet we would find good people with good ideas who just couldn’t handle the last stretch of suffering and thankless effort, those who in the coldest hour before dawn said “I just can’t handle it anymore,” and gave up.
3. You Run Back to Safety After Failing
“I’ll take a salaried job for a while and write Medium posts about everything I learned”
True failure consists only in quitting. At Exosphere we talk a lot about the distinction between Finite and Infinite Games, a concept that comes from James P. Carse. He defines a Finite Game as a game that is played with the purpose of bringing play to an end, declaring winners and losers, and where the winners take home their prize. An Infinite Game, on the other hand, is a game that is played for the purpose of extending play. The whole goal of the game is to just keep playing.
We like to encourage people to think of their creative, scientific, and entrepreneurial journeys as being Infinite Games rather than Finite Games. As Infinite Games, as long as you don’t quit, you never lose. As Finite Games, with preset victory conditions, you may set yourself up for a devastating and demoralizing loss that sends you right back to your old life where you can talk about “what might have been” and “if only.”
Nobody wants to hear it.
Kipling in his famous poem “If,” writes,
“If can you see the things you gave your life to broken,
and stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools…
If you can make one heap of all your winnings,
and risk it on one turn of pitch and toss, and lose,
and start again at your beginnings,
and never breathe a word about your loss.”
The more you dwell on your failure, the more failure will infect all of your thinking. The best way to prove to yourself and everybody else that you have what it takes to succeed in your goals is to stand up and take the first step again, not talk endlessly about the past.
As somebody who has been through a lot of failure in the past, I’m often asked if the reason I don’t talk too much about it is that I’m embarrassed by it. But that’s not it. It’s that those failures happened to a different person. They happened to an old version of myself whose thoughts and memories I can’t access. They aren’t interesting. I’m not proud of them.
I’m just glad I’m still here to keep trying, and that matters more than all that has come before.
4. Your Bar for Failure is Incredibly Low
“There was this one time I went without Starbucks for like two whole days!”
As a student of history, I’ve read about the history of warfare, politics, religious movements, technology, science, philosophy, and exploration, and I’m truly amazed by the extent of the hardships great people have endured in order to achieve whatever it was they set out to do. Near-starvation, physical and mental breakdowns, extreme hot, extreme cold, risk of arrest and execution, torture, abandonment by friends and family, ostracism from society.
I can only think that contemporary humans are weak, lazy, and too easily impressed by their sufferings. The narcissism of my generation makes much ado about difficulties that would be laughed at by our not-so-distant predecessors. They wouldn’t even begin to understand what all of the fuss was about.
We are fortunate to live in a time when we have so much comfort for so little cost. This means we should be able to persevere even more, and accomplish greater feats, but I fear the opposite has become the case. I agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay “Self Reliance” when he says,
“The sinew and heart of man seem to be drawn out, and we are become timorous, desponding whimperers. We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other.”
Indeed, I think the addiction to failure porn in the startup world is a way to fool ourselves into thinking that we are fearless. “Look how valiantly I have failed!” As if this pathetic attitude merits a whit of credit.
Emerson continues his stinging indictment, which is no doubt more true today than it was in his time,
“Our age yields no great and perfect persons. We want men and women who shall renovate life and our social state, but we see that most natures are insolvent, cannot satisfy their own wants, have an ambition out of all proportion to their practical force, and do lean and beg day and night continually…We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born.”
5. You Suffer for Unnecessary Reasons so You Can Brag About it
“I lived without heat for two years so I could craft the perfect pitch deck!”
All suffering is not equal. The key to understanding whether you will succeed in your endeavors is examining which kinds of suffering you endure. Legitimate suffering, that is, the suffering that is a necessary part of solving a problem, is often avoided by people who suffer a lot. It’s just that you suffer all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons. You exchange the legitimate suffering of getting rejected by 100 customers for the illegitimate suffering of having to readjust your expectations about the timing and trajectory of your success and go through the day-in, day-out slog of pitching, tinkering, and going again.
Think of this like exercise as a way to avoid obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. Exercise is suffering for most of us, but it’s a better form of suffering than diabetes, right? Start thinking about the problems in your startup or other endeavors the same way. What’s the exercise you need to do to day to prevent diabetes in 2 weeks?
Endurance is a virtue that is dependent on what is being endured, and the moment you start giving yourself credit for enduring unnecessary suffering is the moment that you have given yourself permission not to address the root causes of the problems that are creating that suffering. It is a dark road that leads into an unimaginable purgatory that becomes like a mythical hallway full of doors that just lead to rooms that lead back to the hallway. You will eventually forget how you got to where you are, and will have no idea of how to get out. It is usually then that your only salvation is catastrophe that shakes you from your complacent misery.
Having been there once myself, I shudder at the thought of returning to it as I write these words. Don’t go there. It’s not worth it, and it’s totally avoidable.
Brutus says in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
I think it is in a sense always true at any moment in my life and projects — I may after the fact realize that I still have another chance. I probably have a hundred more chances. But I may not.
So I better make this one count. And the next one and the next one too.
They all count.