Yes, it's better to succeed than fail. So what?

Bruce Nussbaum wrote an interesting post arguing that entrepreneurs should stop fetishizing failure. While he brings up a number of interesting points, I feel that Bruce has missed a large part of the point of those who chant “Fail early, fail fast, fail often.”

Claim: You learn as much or more from success

Of course it’s better to succeed than fail, but Bruce seems to be taking success as a single separate event. I suspect that if you look at most big successes in the world, there is lots of failure involved. Did they really learn more from their success, or did their failures enable their success?

I don’t believe that the failure “fetishizers” intend to mean that failure is the end goal. The purpose is not failure, failure is the means. You should not be afraid to try things that might fail because if you think an action is the right action to take, you shouldn’t let the fear of failure get in your way. If you do fail, find out why the failure occurred and what was incorrect about your initial assumptions. Nobody holds all perfectly valid ideas in their minds and the only way to correct invalid premises is to learn that they are wrong. A failure is evidence of an error in our knowledge and the fastest way to invalidate an assumption can be to act on it and fail. Is the alternative not to act on our beliefs because we fear we may fail and therefore prove ourselves wrong?

Claim: Failure has consequences and feels bad

Of course failure has consequences, often negative ones. Is “failure” more serious for a kid in an “urban public school” than for a well-off kid attending Stanford? Probably (although the consequences of not taking a chance may also be more serious for that urban kid). This is part of what the “fail fast” crowd seeks to alleviate. All talented, smart kids will experience failure no matter how hard they try. Rather than labelling a person a “failure” for a couple instances of failure, we can tell them, “It’s OK, many successful people have failed, and you can use this failure to learn more.”

Failure does feel bad. Failing to achieve a value or goal feels bad practically by definition. But Bruce’s approach would seek to only reinforce that and punish risk takers. Instead of simply feeling bad because you didn’t achieve what you wanted, you can also celebrate what you’ve learned from the risk you took.

Fallacy of Failure

According to Bruce, the fallacy of failure is that failure is really only celebrated when you ultimately succeed. Aristotle said “we are what we repeatedly do,” so if we are always failing, don’t we become failures? But, Aristotle also believed that a person only found virtue through trial and error in the experiences of his own life. We have to have failures to improve ourselves and succeed. This alleged “fallacy” of failure is really just evidence that failure is not the intended purpose, but the necessary means to achieve sucess.

People who never risk failures are probably the people most commonly viewed as “Failures.” The rest of us are making mistakes and trying new things, sometimes with big consequences to ourselves. The best way to avoid becoming a “Failure” is to accept failures as a part of life and part of the path to success, and then to learn from our failures.

Redefining Failure?

At the end of his post, Bruce makes an interesting clarification about what he means. He argues for a “play” approach rather than a failure-focused one. There are different outcomes, different ways of winning, and when something doesn’t work, you try another. He says this is not failure, although the consequences to an “urban” kid who tries things that don’t work may be indistinguishable from the consequences to a kid who tries something and “fails” at it. Bruce asks, “Do kids who go to Montessori school think of themselves as Failures when their blocks don’t quite fit together?” The answer is no, because kids at Montessori school learn that little failures don’t make you a Failure.

Unlike traditional educational enviroments that emphasize achievement, performance, and results, the Montessori school of education believes in failure and mistakes. Children are not punished or reprimanded for failure, even failures as big as breaking classroom objects. Mistakes are necessary educational tools for children to develop in a Montessori classroom. Dr. Montessori is quoted as saying “it is well to cultivate a friendly feeling towards error, to treat it as a companion, inseparable from our lives, as something having a purpose, which it truly has.” In other words, as a Montessori educator puts it, “Nobody praises his achievement, but nobody needs to. The lessons learned from his mistakes, and his ensuing success, are his rewards.”

Yes, it’s better to succeed than fail, but to succeed, you’re going to have to fail along the way. Remove the possibility of failure and you most likely remove the possibility of success as well. Fail early (rather than later), fail fast (so that your failures are small and you learn from them quickly), and fail often (keep taking new chances and pushing yourself).