Embracing the “F” Word: Failure

0 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 0 LinkedIn 0 Google+ 0 Pin It Share 0 0 Flares ×

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan, six-time NBA champion

Failure has been long viewed as a dirty word. Students, who receive an F on an exam, have “failed.” Athletes, who try out for the football team and get cut, have “failed.” It’s no surprise that students often equate failure with “not good enough,” “not smart enough,” or “not capable enough.”

But that’s the exact opposite approach adopted by the most innovative, successful startup companies in Silicon Valley. Today, startups companies don’t launch polished, finished products into the marketplace. Instead, startup companies launch what’s known as an MVP, or minimum viable product, the most basic version of the core idea with only one or two essential features. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX said, “There’s a silly notion that failure’s not an option at NASA,” referring to a line from the movie Apollo 13. “Failure is an option here [at SpaceX]. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”

Under traditional notions of failure, an MVP should be destined for disaster. But startup companies use the rough-edged MVP to see how customers respond, and if the response is poor, are able to make improvements quickly and cheaply before it’s too late. And that’s the secret sauce. The point is not to avoid failure altogether, but rather to embrace a certain kind of failure. The old, broken way of business used to be that companies guessed what customers wanted and produced a product in a lab isolated from customer feedback. If the product succeeded, no one knew why. If the product flopped, no one knew why, either. The MVP model, however, strategically seeks out a type of failure that delivers cheap, responsive, and reliable insight. Products become stronger by failure, shedding features that don’t work and then focusing on improving features that do. In a sort of counterintuitive way, a company must fail its way to success.

An MVP-type approach to failure is precisely the opposite approach taken by college students today. Rather than embracing failure, students do everything to run from it. Much like the company who locks its scientists away in a lab trying to refine the best product, college students lock themselves away in the library, cramming for the next exam, even though they don’t know why they need an A in the first place. In doing so, these students forfeit the opportunity to learn about their strengths, passions, and abilities that can only best come by an act of doing. And that doing is most effective when students replicate the environment most closely connected to the job they are pursuing. Unfortunately, many students shy away from these opportunities altogether. They fear a grumpy boss. They fear the unknown of learning something new. They fear making new friends. Consequently, this fear prevents gaining valuable feedback that college success so desperately requires.

Rather than experimenting in college, feedback for many comes at a graduate’s first job. But, by this time, it’s too late. Many graduates have already immersed themselves inside a job completely unsuited to their passion, strengths, and personality. They chose Wall Street instead of the nonprofit. They chose lawyering instead of teaching. Failure comes all at once. And it comes as the size of a tidal wave. Leadership guru John Maxwell has called this the “mistake gap.” “The less you venture out, the greater your risk of failure,” said Maxwell. “Ironically, the more you risk failure—and actually fail—the greater your chances of success.” In short, the less failure you have early on, the greater your failure later on.

Students adopting experimentation should expect failure. Indeed, failure is inherent to experimentation. You cannot experiment without failing. Yes, it will suck completing a summer internship that you discover you hate only two weeks in. But consider how much better is it to discover you hate the industry, the job, or the projects as a college student when the stakes are low. You don’t want this revelation when your fulltime job is how you support yourself. Then, there is no way back. Starting failing. Now. To achieve unparalleled college success, there is no other way.

Leave a Reply