By Andrew McConnell, the co-founder and CEO of Rented.
In the world of startups, failure has come to be seen as something to celebrate. It shows you have tried something new, something daring, something risky, but also something that should have outsized rewards if it succeeds.
Being the founder of a technology startup, I will admit that I have professed a belief in and support of this “failure is a good thing” mindset myself. However, I have found that saying I believe in it and acting in adherence to that belief are not the same things.
This was recently made all too apparent to me. Having relocated for a period of time to Bermuda, I found that I had to get a local driving license as they do not recognize foreign licenses as valid on the island. This meant that for the first time since I was 16 (I won’t say how many years ago that was), I would have to take a written exam as well as a road driving test. Despite going in with supreme confidence — I had, after all, been driving with a spotless record for XX years — imagine my dismay when the instructor came back with a big “FAIL” stamped on my form.
The immediate shame that swept over me put any notion of embracing failure as a good thing to rest. What was I going to tell my wife? What was I going to tell my daughter? This was humiliating. Clearly, my professed value of embracing failure was not matching with my actions when faced with the same. In psychology, this tendency is known as the “value-action gap,” and recognizing that I slipped into this gap helped me work my way out of it. I found the remedy was to stay DRIVEN.
You should cultivate a bias for action. The truth is, I had been putting off starting the process to get a license because I had heard many horror stories of others who had failed the difficult test. My fear to get started just pushed back the failure when it came, slowing down my learning and progress, especially since I was not allowed to even take the test again for a full month after failing.
Reality is not the same as theory. I easily passed the written test with a perfect score. I easily nailed the cones test in the parking lot. Reality only really set in when we hit the street (on the wrong side of the road, mind you). No matter how clear and easy something may seem on paper, you won’t know if it really works until you actually try it for yourself in the real world with all the obstacles reality presents.
Figure out what you did wrong. Whether in business or life, failure occurs for a reason or sometimes for many reasons. Dig into the root cause(s), no matter how painful it is. Only then can you fix it and improve the next time around. Failure is not to be celebrated on its own. It is the learning and progress made possible by failure — if you respond to it correctly — that is actually valuable.
Let others see your failure in order to normalize it. Make sure others also see how you then respond and what you identified as the root cause of the failure so they do not fail in the same way in the future. As difficult as it was for me to admit my failure to my five-year-old daughter, I admittedly love that she thinks I can do no wrong. I knew how important it was to show her that everyone fails and that it is totally okay. I don’t want her to be paralyzed by trying new and exciting things because of her own fear of failure. The same is true of my business and my employees. I don’t want to hold them as individuals or us as a company back because we are scared of failing or we will certainly keep repeating past failures.
Everyone fails, especially if you are doing something new and interesting. Even Elon Musk has had rockets explode. It’s part of the journey. And for those who aren’t doing something new and interesting? Perhaps they experience the greatest failure of all: failing to dream big enough or try something daring enough to set yourself up for the possibility of failure in the first place.
Move on, and next time be better. Don’t celebrate failure for failure’s sake. Appreciate it as an often necessary step on your journey to doing something new. Make sure that step takes you forward. Learn from the mistakes you have identified and be better next time around. I went back and practiced — I even hired a driving instructor. The next time, I passed the test with flying colors. Onwards and upwards.
As I worked through this process, I realized that failure wasn’t all that new or rare to me or my business. The difference was that with each “failure” in business I viewed it simply as an experiment, not the end of the story (and no one handed me a paper with a big red “fail” on it, to be fair). As the stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is supposed to have written: “If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.” Something not working in my business did not feel like a failure because I did not judge it as such.
And so, whether in business or life, when it comes to failure, I have found the best mindset to take is that of America’s great inventor, Thomas Edison. Edison is reported to have once said: “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.” Failure is just a label. If you stay DRIVEN, it is also just a stepping stone to something better.