Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Does Greatness Require Failure?

The Importance of Failure

Q: What do Henry Ford, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, J.K. Rowling, Abraham Lincoln, Michael Jordan, and Ludwig van Beethoven have in common?

A: Failure.

You’ve probably heard that you should set small, achievable, clearly-defined goals. You're more likely to realize success if you take on a bite-sized challenge. Don't get too ambitious, or you'll risk failing. Keep your goals small and easy to visualize, and you'll enjoy a high probability of success. 

While that’s not necessarily bad advice, I’m here to tell a different story: follow this advice if you're okay with mediocrity. If you listen to the people who say that, you will not achieve the kind of enduring impact as the people listed above. 

Greatness is a result, at least in part, as a function of the lofty goals set by the individuals listed at the beginning of this post. So is failure. 

Does this mean that everybody is going to fail at first? No.

Does this mean that you won't be successful unless you fail? No.

But when you see a common pattern, you should not only take note of it, but also ask yourself why. Why is failure so common among the most successful people?


I believe that there are three major reasons:

  1. They're willing to try something new
  2. They learn from their previous mistakes, and use that knowledge to improve on their subsequent attempts
  3. In their first attempt, they make contacts with people in the field (or in related fields)
     -POINT #1 indicates a spirit of adventure. There's certainly money to be made by starting a business in an existing field, but it's rare for a new business to take over an old industry. You're not going to dominate or revolutionize an old field with many established competitors, unless you have a new spin that will clearly differentiate your product from your competitors. 

I'm not talking about a subtle difference, or a difference that you know about because you're an expert in the subject. No, I'm talking about something that can be easily noticed by a majority of your customers! Maybe your product is easier to use, or perhaps it's a much higher-quality product, or it's significantly less expensive, or maybe it's better-looking. And so on...

Therefore, you're more likely to get established as a major player in a new and emerging field.

You may note that trying to establish dominance in an emerging field is very risky. You're right—it is! And the tolerance for that level of professional risk isn't common. Even among those who do have that high tolerance for risk, it doesn't always work out. You see the success stories; you don't often see the people who tried, failed, and gave up.

So ask yourself: 'do I have a high risk tolerance?' If the answer is no, starting a new business might not be your best option.

It's no accident that massive companies are often started by people who are relatively young. Young people tend to have the least to lose in such risky ventures; more experienced people tend to have families counting on them, to be thinking about retirement, and to therefore be more risk-averse.

That's entirely reasonable. If you're at a stage in life where you're not so tolerant of risk, then maybe starting a business right now isn't your best option. That doesn't mean you can't plan for it in the future! It just means that the timing isn't right.

Conversely, if you have some money as a cushion, and/or a stable income from a domestic partner, perhaps the time is ripe! Every situation is different. Alas, there is no universally-good advice about whether the timing is right to get your idea off the ground.

     -POINT #2 indicates a certain level of humility. It requires acknowledging, "Hey, maybe I'm wrong! No matter how strongly I believe that this product is phenomenal, if potential customers don't express an interest, then clearly I'm not doing something right. What can I do to make this product more appealing?"

The more I get around the figurative block, the more I observe just how difficult this is for most people. Most people would rather protect their own ideas (and egos) than find out what's true about the world.

If, in fact, people are generally not interested in your 'widget,' then it is wise to change gears. That may mean changing the packaging, changing the marketing, changing the pricing, changing the sales pitch, or even re-thinking the product itself! But clearly, something needs to change if your target group isn't interested in your product!

What's worse than hurting your ego?

Hurting your ego and your wallet.

No matter how much I study human judgment, I'm always amazed at how reluctant people are to let go of their preconceived ideas! Remember this foundational principle of good science, from Karl Popper: "Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it."

Note that this kind of test does not happen nearly enough in academia, let alone in the everyday business world, as Professor Dr. Arjen van Witteloostuijn argues here.

That's right, even the smartest and best-educated can make such mistakes. And if Nobel Prize-winning scientists can fail to follow this principle, you're not immune, either! So don't think you know everything about your product or your market.

Not even if you have 30 years of experience in the field.

Everybody's wrong sometimes, including Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling.


And that includes you.

In sum: Be ready and willing to change to meet customer's needs and desires. If you won't, your competitors will. And then they'll clean your clock.

     -POINT #3 makes me sad to think about, let alone to write about. But it's true: people are more likely to work with people with whom they've already established a relationship. You don't honestly think people pay all that money to attend Harvard, Yale, and Princeton because the professors are so superior at teaching?...

Suppose that you try to start a retail store and it doesn't go well. At least you've already established valuable relationships with suppliers, regulators, and some customers. Next time you start a retail store, you'll be able to use those relationships to get started more easily (not to mention more cheaply) than your first attempt. And when that doesn't work out, you've got even more relationships to draw on!

R.H. Macy founded or co-founded four retail stores that flopped, before founding the now-famous department store bearing his name. Four times he opened stores that ended up flopping! I'm sure he ended up being glad that he tried a fifth time...


So is failure a necessary prerequisite to achieve great commercial success? Not necessarily. But it's common enough that it seems to be a pretty important component.

And, if you've experienced failure once, does it necessarily mean that you're bound for success next time? Nope—just ask R.H. Macy!

It seems that failure is a catalyst for self-critique and a candid re-evaluation what you need to improve. Persistence is important, but that doesn't mean continuing to beat your head against a brick wall. Persistence by itself is useless, unless it is also combined with the wisdom of scrutinizing your own ideas, and learning from your mistakes.

And that is a likely explanation for why utter failure often precedes great success.

Want to find out more? Check out these 5 booksyou might be surprised by how much you learn!

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