Try, die, repeat

by Timothy O’ Connell


Let’s be honest, nobody likes to fail. Failure generates feelings of disappointment, uncertainty, and often despair. A collection of feelings that we tend to avoid whenever possible. These mindsets are often exasperated when our failures are related to our working lives, either as an entrepreneur, manager or young intern. But the simple truth is—no great success was ever achieved without failure. Failure is often a key step to finding success both in our personal and professional lives.

Failure has always played a role in human development, from the primitive attempts of Homo Sapiens to invent the wheel, to the early farmers in the Agricultural Revolution testing new crops, to the great inventors of the Industrial Revolution, to the entrepreneurs leading the Digital Revolution. What has evolved over the centuries is the psychology of failure and our ability to embrace failure as a key step to finding success.

In the past, learning from failure was often a prerequisite to survival, today it has transformed into a business culture where start-ups are encouraged to ‘fail fast’ to learn, pivot and succeed. Today, the culture of failure is a set of shared values, goals and methods that encourage innovation through experimentation. In this culture, failure is not a step backward; it’s a first-rate stepping stone to success.

What are some of the key outcomes of failure that make up this cultural approach? The first is grit—our ability to develop resilience in the face of difficulty and the expectation that success will take an immense amount of effort. The second is experience—nothing can replace the knowledge gained from failure. The third is discovery—this helps us to reflect and take things into perspective, distilling meaning from painful situations. The fourth is method—an approach to recovering and learning from failures.

There are almost no great breakthroughs or innovations without failure. When Amazon removed the Fire phone from the market in 2015 the project lost the company over $150 million. Instead of focusing on who to blame for this epic failure the company used the experience to develop new products such as Echo and other Alexa-enabled smart speakers. Amazon’s Alexa business is currently worth billions. This is just a modern day take on Edison’s 10,000+ attempts to create a light bulb or Dyson’s 5,000+ attempts to invent a bagless vacuum cleaner.

Today, lean startup methods are used by early founders and corporate leaders alike to use failure to innovate faster, cheaper, and more reliably. Success is their common end goal and they are embracing failure to get there. Long live success, long live failure!