Have You Failed Lately?

Since we all want to be successful, failure must be bad.  At the very least, if you fail at something, you are obviously not being successful, and maybe it will make others feel that you are incompetent, not talented, or a loser.  Or maybe you want to avoid failure at all cost because it might cause serious financial or professional consequences.

Thus avoidance of failure tends to be a major objective for most people.  This has unfortunate consequences, because success is not the avoidance of failure.  Success is the achievement of a great accomplishment, and great accomplishment often is accompanied by risk of some degree.  And risk by its very nature entails the possibility of failure, even for the most talented.

Preventing failure should not be our highest objective, because being excessively risk-averse will cause us to always take the safest path, which also will reduce our chances of big successes.

Note that I am not advocating excessively risky behavior.  Indeed, best practices (such as agile development) emphasize risk reduction – but not its outright elimination.  You want to get the odds in your favor, but if you are afraid to act unless you are virtually guaranteed to avoid failure, you won’t ever accomplish much.

And there is another positive side to occasional non-fatal failure:  It is one of life’s best teachers.  When things go right we can all be happy but it hard to say what one learns from it.  But when things go wrong, one usually learns a lot.  I know I certainly have – every failure that I have been a party to is etched into my mind, along with what I will do differently from now on.  It has also convinced me that I can survive and carry on to try again.  Many self-made entrepreneurs have gone from rags to riches – and back to rags – and back to riches again. They are not afraid to try and thus risk failure, because if they do fail, they will just try again, usually with increasing chances of breakthrough success.

One of my favorite questions to ask job candidates during an interview is to tell me about some of their failures.  If you haven’t failed, you haven’t tried anything significant.  We’d be a better and stronger organization if we all operated with more boldness and less risk-aversion.

Years ago, a friend of mine had a big failure.  Equipped with a Ph.D in EE, he designed a digital electronic device that was very novel at the time.  He started up a business to build and sell the devices, and he was so confident of success that he ordered enough parts to make several thousand units.  Unfortunately, his business was a failure because he was only able to sell a few units and he was left with the expense of all the unused expensive parts.  Being desperate to cut his losses, he took out an ad in a hobbyist magazine to see if he could sell some of the leftover parts.  Much to his surprise, he sold all of the parts very quickly.  So – he ordered more parts – and they also sold out.  Today, many years later, he owns a business that grosses several hundred million dollars annually.  That would never have happened if he hadn’t failed at first.  I wouldn’t mind failing like that.

About John

John Peterson has been creating and managing the creation of software for his entire professional life. During that time, he's been through many projects large and small, worked with a wide variety of people on a wide variety of technologies, made a lot of mistakes, and learned a lot in the process. The intention of this blog is to pass along the wisdom he has accumulated in the creation of software to those who may be earlier in their path of experience.
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