Banish Failure! Did You Win Or Did You Learn?

Ah, failure. Are there still people out there who feel that it is a bad thing? I know of very few cases where, barring a life and death struggle, failure does not produce a positive effect. Failure does teach, and it teaches a great lesson.

It’s time to retire the word. For everything.

Read an article the other day in one of my favorite magazines – the New Philosopher (yes, as an innovator, you should read broadly too – just reading HBR and innovation tomes doesn’t open your mind like philosophy and great, far future sci-fi do) where a father was urging on this son to excel at chess. To keep from hurting his feelings, he never used the word “lose”, as in “Did you win or lose?” when he came back from his matches – but the phrase “Did you win, or did you learn?” Of course, there is learning in winning as well, but who can argue that we learn more than we lose. In fact, isn’t it true that we learn more when we lose because we hate feeling pain worse than love feeling pleasure?

Either way, note that the dad specifically did not say “lose” but “learn”. In the same say, can we not constantly attribute failing startups or losing market share to a solid lesson learned? If we slam our innovation initiatives every time they fail, do you think you’ll see your people continuing to take risks?

No, you’ll never get the kind of disruptive innovation that you need, you’ll get the same incremental stuff that might help a little – but won’t lead you to those unicorns you love so much.

We need to recast the concept of failure, eliminate the word as much as we can. Didn’t Thomas Edison say that he never failed, just came up with hundreds of ways that didn’t work? We need to look at risk-taking anew and realize that without risk of “finding ways things don’t work” then we rarely get to the way that does work.

If startups and projects don’t gain traction, they pivot or shut down. The lessons learned from these moves into the founders next startup or the project teams next project or company. Instead of saying “a string of failed startups” you should be thinking “a string of educational experiences”

We had a very long string of inventions, from the Renaissance to the jet engine, truly disruptive concepts which dented the human universe and changed humanity for the better. Even those concepts which were tried and didn’t fly taught us what not to do or educated us that this was the wrong time and place for this concept (so many businesses start too far ahead of the world and are unable to pivot to product/market fit).

But should we slow down, should we stop trying, just because it might cost us to learn? If you ask me it costs us more when we don’t take the risk, when we are afraid to fail.

When you are afraid to fail, then you never do, and without doers, where would we be?

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Lisa LaMagna
3 years ago

Thank you for this great post Chris. Gary Kasparov takes this idea even further: he wants to learn from every win. It is easy to walk away from a win overly confident, it takes much more discipline to look back at a win and critically look for improvements. This is an idea at the start of his book, “Winter is Coming,” about US appeasement (“engagement”) of Putin by Bush, Clinton and Obama (published 2015).

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