Failure isn’t just for startups
Whilst discussing my experiments in bread making with friends, I was given cause to consider our attitudes towards failure.
I work in the field of innovation, advising and mentoring startups. The mantra (perpetuated by the likes of Google and Facebook) is Fail Fast. It’s received wisdom, no one in startup land questions the fact that many startup ideas will fail, and even the successful ones are largely built on the learnings from a succession of failures.
For entrepreneurs and investors, failure is not only acceptable, it’s desirable. Many investors will feel a greater degree of confidence towards a startup that is run by someone who’s already had a failed enterprise. On the face of it, this sounds counterintuitive. Surely you’d be more inclined to back an entrepreneur who had exited successfully (sold their startup to a larger business). The logic applied by investors is that startup founders are unlikely to make the same mistakes twice.
Failure is an excellent way of learning valuable lessons – hence ‘Fail Fast’. Once you accept that some level of failure is inevitable, for a new business it’s going to be much much cheaper to fail early on in a project. Failure at the end of a project means going back to the beginning – a much longer and more expensive journey that failing at the start.
(For an example of a startup that didn’t embrace early failure by testing their assumptions read this excellent teardown article about the doomed Jucerio).
So the world of innovation and entrepreneurialism has embraced failure – and by this I mean that the stigma of not getting it right first time has been replaced by the knowledge that it’s an essential part of the process that cannot be ignored and better still, can be used to improve the overall outcome.
And then there’s the rest of us.
When was the last time you cooked a meal that didn’t work? For me it’s a monthly occurrence. Even now, several years after starting to bake all my own bread, I regularly have batches that don’t work – rock hard dense slabs of baked flour or tasteless sponges (when I forget the salt).
Often times a failed recipe will lead us to strike the meal from our repertoire. Laura and I still shudder when we think about an ill fated vegetable biriani that almost finished us off.
My particular bête noir is mayonnaise. I love making fresh mayonnaise. It’s easy to make (with a minimum of three ingredients – oil, egg and lemon juice). However, every now and again for some unknown reason, it splits. So instead of thick, creamy awesome sauce you get a bowl of oily egg yolk. I don’t know what it is about failed mayonnaise, but it sends me into a rage. I get so cross with myself, I’ve even been known to throw bowls into sinks and stamp my feet like a 3 year old.
So yeah, we’re pretty good at being hard on ourselves – especially when we’ve invested time and energy in something and it doesn’t come out the way we wanted.
Things are worse in the working environment. At work we have the added pressure of ensuring that we don’t mess up something that will cost our employers money or reputation. Added to this, many of us have bosses who (we imagine) would think less of us for failing. Failure could cost us a pay rise, or even our job.
Many of my corporate clients have a stated ambition to embrace failure. I have given talks about this to various marketing conferences. Why is it that big companies cannot innovate?
The simple truth (which I try and stretch out to a 30 minute presentation) is that whilst CEO’s and company leaders say they want their companies to embrace failure, we as individuals view failure in others as a flaw and failure in ourselves as a sign of weakness that could risk our ability to pay the mortgage or service or car loan. In short, we’re scared of fucking up and getting sacked.
Failure vs wilful incompetence
Many of these problems stem from a failure to recognise the difference between failure due incompetence and failure due to risk taking.
Taking risks is the only way we can expand our worlds, both in a work and a personal setting. Again it’s important to differentiate calculated risks and recklessness. Instinctively we know the difference – Recklessness carries the risk of harm to others whereas calculated risk comes with the possibility of failure, but with the promise of expanding your horizons.
Recklessness and wilful incompetence are completely different from the kind of failure that can help improve the longer term outcomes.
To use my bread-making as an example….
The last time I baked a couple of loaves that ended up straight in the bin it was because the levain starter was not very active. I had assumed it was since i’d be dutifully feeding it every couple of days, but I hadn’t taken into account the fact that starters can become inactive if the build up of ethanol is too great. This happens (I’ve discovered) when you don’t use or discard a good chunk of the starter before feeding it. Normally this isn’t a problem since I use half of the starter every weekend. The last baking failure occurred because I’d not bake the previous weekend and the starter had become overloaded with ethanol – a byproduct of the yeast and ultimately toxic to a healthy sourdough starter.
It was annoying because I didn’t have any bread for the week. Have I learnt from it? Yes. I now smell my levain to see if it’s too ethanol-ee and discard half of it before feeding if it does.
This small failure has made me a slightly better baker, and future failures will help me in similar ways. Experience simply exposes us to more failures, which can and should always be seen as learning opportunities.
By the way there are certain environments where failure is less desirable – In my twenties I was an intensive care nurse. Failure in this kind of situation is largely unacceptable, and it’s hard to talk about acceptable risk when you’re dealing with people’s lives. You can, however, change your attitude to your own personal failures, and in doing so it will make you more able to learn from those inevitable mistakes – and mistakes are inevitable, even in intensive care units.
We are not exposed to failure
Many of us are simply not exposed to the possibility of failure. There are safeguards in place in our everyday lives that limit the possibility of risk.
If you follow the instructions on a pre-prepared meal, you will get something that resembles the picture on the front of the box. If you follow the directions on an Ikea flatpack chair, you will get a chair. We think we’ve been skilful or self sufficient because we were the agents in our own meal or in the making of the furniture, but in reality we had no agency. We were simply following instructions and therefore the risk of failure was reduced.
I believe that many of us happily describe ourselves as being incapable of cooking or DIY precisely because we’d rather not experience in the uncomfortable feeling of not getting it right first time. The more western culture creates safe tracks for us to operate in – barriers on footpaths, step by step instructions for the assembly of a table or a stir-fry or how to raise a child, the less capable we are of going off piste and becoming genuinely skilled in a new activity.
We look to the tidiness of the pre-made, pre-cut bits of wood that can be assembled into a table as being the only way we should be allowed to create furniture. We’re not creating anything though, we’re just saving Ikea some warehousing and transportation costs.
We have been given the illusion of freedom to create without the risk of getting it wrong, but it’s a series of limited choices that we are presented with, by a small number of companies who would prefer us to stick to the instructions.
School is creating a failure averse society
I’ve noticed that both my kids are particularly upset when something doesn’t go as planned. They have an expectation that everything they do will be brilliant the first time they do it, and if (or when) it goes wrong they get upset and resolve never to put themselves in that situation again.
The schooling system is partly to blame. When we make everything about tests and examinations we are basically telling our kids that they get one chance to do it right and anything else is unacceptable.
There are a number of other factors that influence how children react to failure though. A big one will be their parents. How do we react when a kid gets something wrong? Do we congratulate them on trying hard or do we only give them praise when they get it right?
I think we’re all guilty of heaping praise on the quality of the output rather than the process.
We need to see failures as learning opportunities
Fail Fast means take the opportunity to learn fast. This is as true for startups as it is for us as individuals.
By reframing the potential fuckups in our lives as opportunities to improve our knowledge, skills and emotional toolkit, we can be more brave in the kind of things we try.
We also need to challenge ourselves to be more forgiving of failures in others. People around us are going to mess up. Our friends are going to mess up. Our kids are going to mess up. We can either chose to support them in learning from the experience or we can make them wish they’d never tried in the first place.
If we do the former, we’ll be helping others be far more supportive of our failures. And, assuming you want to do more in your life than follow a set of instructions given to you by someone else, you are going to have failures.
Look forward to failure pudding
When I was a kid we used to look forward to my mum’s failure puddings. She would often try new recipes – some would work, some wouldn’t, but they were always fun to try. Over the years, criticism from my father, and a few too many jokes from her children resulted in less experiments and fewer new puddings.
I don’t think a narrower repertoire of guaranteed successes (basically chocolate mousse) was worth the price of avoiding the failure puddings.
Embrace the failure pudding.