Fail fast in order to win. That’s the counter-intuitive lesson repeated by entrepreneurs. But is it right?
The ability to fail faster than the next guy doesn’t seem like much of an advantage. But here’s how you can succeed by failing.
Welcome to Throwback Thursday, where we take a look at a past Agile Lifestyle feature that’s still as timely and relevant as ever. This article has been completely updated and expanded with the latest research and information.
James Dyson knows how to fail.
Dyson looked at the vacuum in his home one day and decided he could make a better one. He set out to make a bagless vacuum that required less upkeep. At the time, the idea that you could improve the design of the vacuum was like suggesting you could improve sliced bread. It couldn’t be done.
15 years and 5,125 failed prototypes later, and it was looking like the conventional wisdom was right.
That is, until prototype number 5,126:
I tried all sorts of shapes. Nothing worked. So then I thought I’d try the wrong shape, the opposite of conical. And it worked. It was wrong-doing rather than wrong-thinking. That’s not easy, because we’re all taught to do things the right way.
— James Dyson
You probably know the rest of the story. With $6 billion in worldwide sales to date, the Dyson vacuum is one of the great modern success stories in the home appliance industry and in industrial design.
15 years might seem like a long, slow development process. But when you consider that, on average, Dyson was creating 28 prototypes a month you realize how quickly he was experimenting, testing, and iterating on his design.
What Dyson mastered was the art of failing fast.
Why We Undervalue Failure
My success is built entirely on my ability to fail quickly and then learn and adapt from the results of that failure.
— Chris Brogan, The Freaks Shall Inherit the Earth
The most successful entrepreneurs, artists, and leaders in the world understand that failure is a part of the learning process.
Failure closes the feedback loop. Failure leads to course corrections, which gets you further to your goal. And the sooner you fail, the quicker you can learn from your failure and move on.
In other words, if you’re not failing, you’re not succeeding either.
As a culture, we have a tendency to focus only on success stories. But no one succeeds on the first try. Or even the 5,126th. If you dig into the story of any successful person, business, or organization, you see the story of countless failures before getting to the success that they’re known for.
Michael Jordan didn’t make the cut for the high school varsity basketball team. Katy Perry was a failed Christian gospel singer named “Katy Hudson” before she became a pop sensation. J.K. Rowling was rejected by 12 different publishers and living on welfare before the phenomenon that is Harry Potter.
What agile and Lean Startup methodology acknowledges that other ways of thinking don’t is that failure is inevitable. That in and of itself makes it okay to fail. But if you’re going to fail anyway, it’s better to fail fast, fail early, and fail often.
Overcoming the Fear of Failure
We know that the fear of failure is one of the most crippling psychological barriers to change. Our brains have evolved to associate failure with death. After all, if you failed at outrunning a savannah lion in ancient Africa, your ancestors wouldn’t have lived to pass their genes onto you.
Even though most of us aren’t faced with life or death situations every day, this ancient programming persists.
Self-professed “media manipulator” Ryan Holiday is the author of The Obstacle Is the Way. In it, he argues that what we see as obstacles to action often become the key to moving forward in life. What holds us back from seeing this fundamental truth is the fear of failure (emphasis mine):
Even though we know that there are great lessons from failure—lessons we’ve seen with our own two eyes—we repeatedly shrink from it. We do everything we can to avoid it, thinking it’s embarrassing or shameful. We fail, kicking and screaming.
Well why would I want to fail? It hurts.
I would never claim it doesn’t. But can we acknowledge that anticipated, temporary failure certainly hurts less than catastrophic, permanent failure? Like any good school, learning from failure isn’t free. The tuition is paid in discomfort or loss and having to start over.
But Craig Ballantyne at Early to Rise reminds us that, at the core, the fear of failure is a selfish impulse:
Pardon me. Lose your SELFISH fear of failure, because for every day that you selfishly protect your ego behind the veil of inaction, someone with REAL problems sits at home without your solution.
The fear of failure is selfish because it comes from a place of self-preservation.
When you succumb to the fear of failure and allow analysis paralysis to stifle your ability to take action, you’re letting that primal part of your brain that Steven Pressfield, screenwriter and author of The War of Art, calls The Resistance take over.
The best way to get over the fear of failure is to treat failure as feedback. Failure isn’t fatal. Failure is a lesson learned and a lesson earned.
Consider the following steps to learn how to fail faster:
1. Treat Life Like an Experiment
James Altucher, serial entrepreneur and author of I Was Blind But Now I See, has a great article explaining the need and benefits to treating your life like a series of experiments. He identifies the renewed sense of wonder you feel when you begin to see every aspect of your life with fresh eyes:
Cultivate and nourish the feeling. You are the scientist and explorer of the life around you. Even if it feels fake at first. Really visualize it. You are the scientist. Your life is the laboratory.
Treating life like an experiment is liberating because it means you don’t need to have it all figured out. You can try new hobbies, go out with different people, change your look, and dive into different interests. As an adult, it can be easy to lock into an image of yourself and never deviate.
Here’s some examples of harmful negative self-talk:
- “I don’t have the power to make that decision.”
- “It’s not the right time to start dating again.”
- “I don’t dance.”
- “I’ll never get out of this dead-end job.”
Now imagine you are in a foreign country. No one in the entire country knows who you are. You could pretend to be a completely different person and no one could call you out on it.
Now imagine an attractive stranger strikes up a conversation with you. Who would you want to be in that moment? What character traits would you want to have? What kind of experiences would you want to relate? What stories about yourself would you want to tell?
Snap back to reality. What’s keeping you from becoming that person?
Give yourself the freedom to experiment and you might become that person.
2. Focus on Takeaways
Every failure contains a lesson and that lesson is how not to proceed. Think of a treasure map with a big red X on it showing where the treasure is.
Now imagine the map is inverted, and instead of one big red X there are a bunch of smaller X’s showing where the treasure isn’t buried.
The maps are identical in value because they both show you where to dig.
Real life is more like the second map than the first. It’s about continuous improvement, not having the perfect plan from the get-go.
Remember that no plan survives contact with reality anyway. So it’s your ability to bounce back from adversity and setbacks that matters the most. Learning to move on from your failures is a skill in and of itself.
When you fail fast, you learn fast. And you get that much closer to success.
3. Practice Success (and Failure) Amnesia
Even though you should learn from your failures and your successes, it’s also best not to dwell on any particular one. Venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar notes that the highest achievers practice success and failure amnesia:
Practice success and failure amnesia. Forget that you succeeded. Forgive and forget that you failed. Learn from both and move on fast. Failure can be a patient teacher- it’s often a learnable event. Success can lead to signal and pattern blindness. The greatest achievers I have met are grounded and focused. They practice success amnesia.
When you adopt an agile mindset, you learn that responding to change is the most important skill. Yesterday’s success might be today’s failure if conditions have changed. So a healthy amount of amnesia goes a long way towards taking the next action or that next step.
4. Turn Lessons into Actions
Can you imagine if James Dyson had quit before the 5,126th prototype?
I have no doubt that Dyson learned something new from every single one of those prototypes. All of that collective learning led to his revolutionary re-design of the vacuum.
But none of it would have mattered if he had stopped taking action.
Remember that failure only becomes permanent if you let it.
You can course correct. You can iterate. You can pivot.
But don’t give up.
Thanks for reading.
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A version of this article first appeared on July 18, 2012.
Top image by by Emery_Way.