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Failure Is Not an Option ... It's Inevitable

Our culture has this incredible aversion to failure. When someone says “I feel like a failure” it brings up some of the worst emotions: self-doubt, pity, shame. But we start out in life failing ALL THE TIME. How many times does a baby, who is learning to walk, have to fall before she builds up enough muscle and coordination to stand on her own? Hundreds? Do you think she thinks, "Oops, I fell down. I suck at this, so I better not do it any more?" No! So, how does that "gotta keep failing 'til I don't" attitude disappear when we grow up?

While some of us are starting to get over it, the perception of failure as bad is still quite embedded. So many of us avoid taking even the smallest risks because we are afraid to fail. We stay in jobs that don’t utilize our best assets. We stay in relationships or friendships that don’t support our growth. We get stuck in routines, and avoid doing the things we dream about … All because we are afraid of that self-doubt, pity, or shame that might arise if we try something new and we (gasp) FAIL!

“If you can learn from it and if you can laugh about it, then it’s all worth it.”
— Sara Blakely

But, then there are people like Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, who talks about how her father encouraged her and her siblings to identify their failures every day and share them at the dinner table. The lesson was that failure was a good thing because they tried. The outcome was irrelevant.

One of my coaches talks about the idea that when you are producing content for your business, not everything is going to be a win. Maybe 1 out of 10, so if you’re not being super-efficient and continuing to produce A LOT, you won’t have many wins. And I’m sure you can imagine what that self-defeated spiral down the toilet looks like. So, the lesson there is that success comes from trying, but you have to know that there will be more fails than wins in the process.

In the tech start-up world, the going mantra is: “fail fast.” It’s sort of a badge of honor. I have no idea how many of those founders truly recover. How many of them actually get picked up and dusted off by their peers and communities and encouraged to go do it again after wasting millions of dollars of investor money? Maybe a lot. But, here’s where I disagree. I don’t subscribe to the model that one should necessarily take huge risks without any fear of the potential downsides of that risk.  

So, on the one side, I’m hearing myself say: “Put it all out there. Don’t be afraid. Celebrate the wins and the losses. And learn from them both.”

On the other side, I DO NOT advocate taking completely unmeasured risks! Failing fast (and big) works in Silicon Valley because it’s a numbers game for VC’s, who don’t really care what happens as long as a small percentage of their bets pay off huge. They can afford to be a bit careless. Most of us can’t. So, I say: Fail small on a daily basis until you’ve built up enough experience, data, maturity (and cash reserves) to put it all out there. Do think about the consequences of your actions.

But, if you’re not willing to fail at all ... it means you never tried.

So, you’re scared. What are you actually scared of? And, what’s the worst that could happen? (Ok, if it’s really really bad, don’t do it.)  

So, people might judge you … so what? They judge you all the time anyway.

So, they might reject you. How do you know, unless you ask?

So, you’ve never done it before or you don’t know how. Figure it out. The number of free resources we have at our fingertips today to help us solve problems is astronomical. Don’t use that as an excuse.  

Here’s the thing. Whenever someone says: “Failure is not an option,” – meaning, we cannot, will not allow failure, I’m turning it around. Because failure, my friends, is inevitable. It’s the lessons you learn from it that will determine your level of success.


Now, I’d love to hear from you … What have you failed at? And what did you learn in the process? Are you still traumatized? Or, are you stronger and wiser for it?