Wisdom//

Failure is an Accomplice to Success, Not Its Enemy (Or, Why We Need to Rethink Failure)

How we think about failure may be all wrong.

Gajus / Shutterstock
Gajus / Shutterstock

We don’t fear failure in itself.

Failures are painful, no doubt about it. Nobody wants to try and fail. But it’s not simply about failure itself — it’s more about the things that come with it.

All the time and energy invested in a venture, the emotional buildup to an anticipated outcome… and finally, the let down. The waves of disappointment that come flooding in when things don’t come to fruition. It can be too much for many people to bear.

Worst of all, what if our failure confirms our worst fear: that we’re don’t have what it takes?

As we grow older, we come more and more afraid of failure. Eventually, it gets to the point where doing nothing seems like a better alternative because we don’t want to spend anymore time and energy on things that might not pan out.

Failure can be terrifying when you look at it that way.

But consider failure from a different perspective. It’s one that a lot of entrepreneurs and innovative companies use to test out new ideas. Here’s how it works.

Experiment with Failure

Whenever something doesn’t go our way, our first thought tends to be: “This isn’t right for me. I shouldn’t be doing this.”

And then, we give up.

It’s too easy to feel dejected and frustrated when something doesn’t come out perfect. But it’s okay if things don’t go just the way you want. Look at it from this perspective: failing is an experiment in itself.

Each time you fail, you get feedback on what you did and didn’t do wrong. For instance, you may think you have strong gut instincts, but you later end up misjudging someone’s motives and making the wrong decision.

It doesn’t mean your gut instincts are inherently faulty. It just means you haven’t gained enough experience and knowledge to know how to act to a situation.

A past mistake is an opportunity to learn and improve for the future.

The “Fish Egg” Approach to Failure

Big mistakes can be costly, though. After all, you don’t want to develop a poor policy or lose all your money in a bad investment. Failures of these magnitudes can be hard, if not impossible, to recover from.

Instead, approach failure by using lots of little tests. Think of your experiments like the survival strategy of the salmon.

In the winter, a female salmon finds a gravel bed in clear water to lay up to 5,000 eggs. Of those thousands of eggs, some aren’t fertilized, a few get washed away, while others are covered in dirt erosion.

Still, most of the eggs hatch into alevins and start off life in a small stream. Only a few months old, some are eaten or die of weakness before they can grow into fry.

After about a year, the salmon grow from fry into parr, at which point they are ready to move downstream for more food and space (but also more competition). By the time they’re two to four years old, the smolts travel to sea to feed on smaller fish.

They then make the trek from the sea to the ocean. Along the way, hundreds are fished up, eaten by bigger fish, or die from sickness and pollution. The salmon remain in the ocean until they grow up to be healthy and strong adults.

Once they’ve reached this point, the salmon once again leave the ocean, fighting against the currents to return to the tiny stream where they were born. A number of them die of exhaustion along the way.

Out of the thousands of eggs in the stream, less than a hundred salmon make it back to their place of birth to continue the cycle of life. Even fewer make the same journey back out to sea again.

The chances of an egg growing into an adult salmon are less than 1 percent. But the more eggs a salmon lays, the higher the probability that its children will live long enough to return to its birthplace.

Failure is the same. Some attempts won’t make it past the early stages. Some result in varying forms of progress. But a few attempts go the entire journey and make everything worth the effort.

Plan for Failure

You are bound to make mistakes along the process of learning new skills or working towards a goal. It’s just part of the process to getting better.

So if failing is inevitable, then it’s best to expect and plan for it. Anticipate where and when things may go wrong. Listen to others’ experiences and your own to see what you can do differently next time.

Your results won’t be ideal the first time you try — far from it. So instead of planning for one massive all-or-nothing attempt at something, plan for many failures. These small failures give you lots of feedback on how to iterate and improve.

For example, look at how the phone has evolved. Before wires were used to transmit messages, it first started out as a pair of tin cans attached by a string.

Early telephones ranged in their method of transmissions, with some becoming out of use soon after development. Phones with liquid transmitters were short-lived, while others that vibrated a coil of wire in a magnetic field existed for a time in the military during the 20th century.

Through numerous trials, errors, and iterations, the phone has evolved in the past few centuries to become the smartphone as we know it. Even today, the phone is still undergoing changes.

Those early telephones that went out of use or had faults may have seemed pointless, but they weren’t. They gave inventors valuable information on what users needed and how to improve the device. The failures were a necessary part of discovery.

More Success Means More Failures

People often think that success means not failing, as if the two were exact opposites. But they’re a lot closer than one might realize.

You see, if someone never attempted anything, that person would also never fail or succeed. But whenever someone tries to learn a skill or attempts something, the person starts accumulating both failures and successes. The more success someone experiences, the more failures they’ve faced in the past.

The important thing to remember is this: You are not your failure. It does not define you. It does not mean you are unworthy. It’s just a step you must go through to attain success.

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