There are many who advocate that the key to success, especially with innovation, is what’s known as the “fail faster” philosophy, which says that not only should we embrace new ideas and try new things without being overly concerned with failure, but, more importantly, we should effectively fail as efficiently as possible in order to expedite learning valuable lessons from our failure.
However, I have often experienced what I see as two fundamental flaws in the “fail faster” philosophy:
- It requires that you define failure
- It requires that you admit when you have failed
Most people — myself included — often fail both of these requirements. Most people do not define failure, but instead assume that they will be successful (even though they conveniently do not define success either). But even when people define failure, they often refuse to admit when they have failed. In the face of failure, most people either redefine failure or extend the deadline (perhaps we should call it the fail line?) for when they will have to admit that they have failed.
We are often regaled with stories of persistence in spite of repeated failure, such as Thomas Edison’s famous remark:
“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
Edison also remarked that he didn’t invent one way to make a lightbulb, but instead he invented more than 1,000 ways how not to make a lightbulb. Each of those failed prototypes for a commercially viable lightbulb was instructive and absolutely essential to his eventual success. But what if Edison had refused to define and admit failure? How would he have known when to abandon one prototype and try another? How would he have been able to learn valuable lessons from his repeated failure?
Josh Linkner recently blogged about failure being the dirty little secret of so-called overnight success, citing several examples, including Rovio (makers of the Angry Birds video game), Dyson vacuum cleaners, and WD-40.
Although these are definitely inspiring success stories, my concern is that often the only failure stories we hear are about people and companies that became famous for eventually succeeding. In other words, we often hear eventually successful stories, and we almost never hear, or simply choose to ignore, the more common, and perhaps more useful, cautionary tales of abject failure.
It seems we have become so obsessed with telling stories that we have relegated both failure and success to the genre of fiction, which I fear is preventing us from learning any fact-based, and therefore truly valuable, lessons about failure and success.