Failure Does Not Make You a Failure

“I can’t afford to fail.”  A young person recently told me this.  He was deciding whether to try something he was really excited about, but that was new and different (not even particularly risky).  He meant it.  It was clear that he saw this as a make or break moment in his life, and it broke my heart.  You can afford to fail.  In fact, you can’t afford to avoid failure.

I’m not sure all the causes, though I believe schooling is a very deep part of the root system, but young people are terrified of failure.  It’s completely backwards.  Never in human history has there been such a soft landing.  Never has it been easier to recover.  When a business or an event or a project fails it doesn’t mean you fail.  In fact, a failed business can be the surest path to personal success.  If you don’t let it ruin you.

Failure is not catastrophic.  It’s just a part of the process of success.  You try to ride a bike and you fall down.  You try to play video games and you lose.  Kids seem able to recover from failure at these pretty easily.  Maybe because their parents don’t care and don’t show anxiety and anger and send them into remedial video game classes and summer camps.  Whatever the reason, there’s something to be taken from these failures.  Apply that same nonchalance to life.  Life is nothing but a series of games.

The desire to succeed and frustration at failure is normal and can be productive and motivating, but only when you’re doing something you know you want to be doing.  The real killer is crippling fear of failing at some arbitrary standard set by someone else, or fear of what other people will think even when you don’t really care about the end goal itself.  When exploring and learning something new, failure is to be expected.  Don’t internalize it.  Learn from it, laugh at it, and move on.

One you’ve gained some level of mastery, then competitive pressure and desire to be perfect can be helpful.  I read about a study where pool players were observed.  When they were told they were being observed and judged the amateur pool players started playing a lot worse.  The really good players started playing better.  We need a lot of judgement free space to explore and learn and decide what we like and get better at it.  Self-judgement needs to be the first to go.  After you’ve mastered something you can choose to take failure personally if it helps you and motivates you, but not before.

I think a lot of people are scared of entrepreneurship because they hear statistics about what percent of new businesses fail.  But notice what’s happening here.  You hear that a business failed, and in your mind you subtly converge the business with the founder and assume that the founder failed.  You assume if you start a business odds say it will fail, and therefore you will fail and you don’t want to fail.  But that’s not what happens.  When a business fails the people involved don’t fail.  They typically walk away with some great experience, knowledge, new connections, sometimes even money.

Stop being afraid of failure.  Stop worrying about being average or above average on some arbitrary scale created by someone besides yourself.  Freely explore and try things and learn things and get better at the stuff you love.  You’ve got to stop avoiding failure if you want to succeed.