A {grow} Community Week Contribution by Steven H. Parker

Fail fast.  Fail often.  Fail spectacularly.  Fail worse than everyone else.  Fail like there’s no tomorrow.  If you fail enough, success is guaranteed.  What a crock!

I don’t disagree with the premise behind failure worship.  I’m a huge fan of dogged persistence, tireless pursuit and continuous improvement.  I practice all three in my work every day because frankly, I don’t know how to do it any other way.  Nothing about what I do is fast, easy, cheap, simple or obvious.  But it drives me bonkers the way we worship, promote and advocate the embrace of failure in such stupid ways.

The emphasis is all wrong.  It’s like assuming all you’ve got to do to win the marathon is get the lead for the first 100 yards.  More failure is seen as better than less, under the misleading assumption that it will lead inexorably to success.

This view ignores the fundamental reality that you have to learn from failure, and apply what you learn to the next attempt.  If you don’t, then there’s no path leading from repeated failures to success.  A single broken link breaks the whole chain.  And what is missing from the cult of failure is that it often is to learn the right lesson from a failure.  Worse, there’s no practical advice on how to suss the lesson out.  The implicit assumption is that all lessons will be obvious, but it isn’t necessarily so.  In fact, it can be difficult.  Often the data is contradictory.  How do you draw valid conclusions from conflicted results?

Ask anyone who’s been through a major, life-altering failure.  Take it from me, nothing is automatic.  It may take years to recover and there’s no little red reset button.  I was one of the many agency owners whose businesses were vaporized by the dot com bust 10 years ago.  We threw every innovation we knew at the problem of winning new business.  We failed and failed and failed again.  Because we were working in the mindset of a market that no longer existed.  Our market had suddenly imploded by about two-thirds.  Nothing we tried was effective, because for a while, no one was buying anything.  Our real failure was not recognizing how quickly and completely the steep downturn in the tech sector had broken our business model.  But that was a doozy.  We had to retrench and retool.

Too many people seem to be seeking “permission to fail.”  It does relieve a lot of the pressure to perform.  In our instant gratification-oriented society, this is welcome news.  Hey, relax!  Don’t kill yourself.  Just keep failing until you get it right.  Things will work out. Is this ambition or slacking?  Is this just another example of wishful thinking?  Are we deluding ourselves?  Or are we just too lazy?

In so many fields today our culture has no middle, no gray areas.  Only extremes.  But the middle and the gray areas are where real life happens.  What a shame when we don’t recognize it.

Actually a few people do.  Like Seth Godin.  In Poke the Box, he does a masterful job arguing for taking the initiative, being accountable, making stuff happen, owning your failures and learning from them.  But he puts failure worship in the right context.  True, it’s not to be feared, it’s a (hopefully) temporary impediment to be overcome.  But it’s not a “goal,” heaven forbid, nor an acceptable outcome to be glorified.  Godin astutely nails the Nike psyche by admonishing us that no, it’s not “Just Do It.”  It should be only, “Do It.”  There is no “just” because it’s damned hard work.

There’s real work in converting your failures to success.  The only way to convert them is by learning.  If you put in the effort to learn, eventually you may succeed.  But there are no guarantees.  Not even if you’re 100% buzzword-compliant with “lean, agile, game-changing, innovative, disruptive, blah, blah, blah.”

The next time you’re tempted to jump on the failure-lovin’ bandwagon, stop and think.  It shouldn’t be “fail fast” – it should be “learn fast.”  Forget about failure.  It comes naturally, with hardly any effort.  Instead resolve to decide what proactive steps YOU will take to ensure that you learn whatever lessons you can from each failure and apply them the next time.  That valuable lesson or insight will not walk up to you and introduce itself.  You might have to go grab it and wrestle it to the ground.  Don’t waste a failure!

Focus on pursuing your lifelong learner merit badge.  It has a better future.  And a longer tail.

Are you with me on this or are you a fail fan?

Steven H. Parker has helped Internet and technology startups to tell their stories for more than 25 years.  He is founder and CEO of Parker Communications.  He’s @sparker9 on Twitter and blogs at Marketing Dissector

Illustration: Toothpaste for Dinner

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