Fail Forward

Fail Forward By Steven Kovar • 3 min read

Our concept of failure is broken. We fear failure, feel defeated by it, and can be discouraged by just the prospect of failure alone.

To many, the term "failure" is a simple heuristic—a mental shortcut that we create early on—representing an end-state of humiliation, shame, etc. This is completely backwards.

Failure can be one of our most powerful tools.

It starts at a young age. As children we are taught to strive for success and that falling short isn't acceptable. Non-success is quickly associated with punishment when a bad grade is given in school, or a starting position in sports is given to the better player. With a little intuition, we can reason that different people react to—and anticipate—failure in varying ways.

Take this excerpt from a 2008 study, The Social Dynamics of Mathematics Coursetaking in High School:

Members of a social context can influence an adolescent’s personal valuation of math and, therefore, the psychological loss for failure to engage math, the adolescent’s sense of the importance of math, or the adolescent’s popularity as a result of engaging in math.

This suggests that one's external environment can influence both how important we think something is and whether or not failing at it is a big deal.

Replace "math" in this example with something like "startups" and we can see how the social context of Silicon Valley varies with other areas.

Imagine the responses from people who live in different places to hearing that your startup died. In certain cities you might expect a response like, "don't quit your day job" and others you might expect, "so what's your next project?"

In his book Failing Forward, John Maxwell makes an argument that "the difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure."

Changing our perception of failure is a subtle act in and of itself.

Disconnect the emotional distress from failure and you strip it down to existing merely as a data point. Khan Academy does a great job of visualizing this with their Class Profile data:

This graph (showing student success over time) exemplifies the importance of looking at failure as a data point.

What we see is a plot line of mastery for each student, showing when they get "stuck" trying to understand a concept (horizontal) and when they master concepts (vertical)—every student learns at a different pace.

In a traditional scenario, students who don't grasp a concept will be given a bad grade and the class will move on as a whole, predisposing "stuck" students to further failure.

Khan Academy provides a new context for failure, allowing students to fail forward by shedding the pressure of deadlines and displacing the cognitive dissonance and self-blame resulting from bad grades; it prioritizes progress over grades and rewards intrinsic motivation by removing the stress of pre-scheduled test times.

In the case of a business or system which relies on resources to continue existing, things become more complex.

With an operational cost assumed, failure is the default state from which success emerges. This isn't inherently bad; it just means your business needs to find success before it reaches the end of the runway.

Lean approaches and "fail fast" processes have their merits in this environment by encouraging small, calculated risks and making data-driven decisions to maximize this runway. At AppSumo, nearly 85% of our tests fail, yet we are a healthy and growing company.

That said, the idea of failing forward isn't a process. Failing forward is a change in mentality regarding how you react to failure.

In business, individually, and in relationships, failure is just a data point that adds value at a later time.

Failure provides experience and wisdom to add to your repertoire—it's an investment in your future.

It's easy to become emotionally entwined with a failure due to pride or hope, which is why people mention the "trough of sorrow" in the startup industry. A supportive social system helps remove that emotional attachment to failure; it is a fact of life and it happens to everybody—sometimes we get stuck.

It's not how you fail that matters, but how you respond. Don't be afraid to fail. When you do, fail forward.

Tell me what you think via Twitter.


Published in #Thoughts.

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