To Succeed, you Must Fail, and Fail More

Failure is often looked down upon as unfortunate and unwanted. The emotions associated with failure are typically disappointment, shame or anger. But if people viewed failure as a step to success and a learning opportunity then they would end up being much more successful in the end.  Thomas Watson Sr., the original Chairman and CEO of IBM, once said  “The fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.”  I sincerely believe that. In sales management and in marketing you must experiment a lot and this means that you will fail often and fail a lot before you can succeed.  In fact, in work and in life, failure is an absolutely essential ingredient for success.

Fail Fast

Thomas Edison famously designed more than 1,000 light bulbs before finding one that worked. As he was doing so, the public and scientific community regarded his oddity of an experiment as a grand failure. In fact, upon his successful invention of the light bulb, a reporter asked him, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?”

“I didn’t fail 1,000 times,” Edison answered. “The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

That is the right attitude.  Each ostensible ‘failure’ is  a learning experience, a baby step you have to take in order to reach your desired destination.

As a sales or marketing manager, you can’t simply rely on tried and true practices – everybody is doing those things, including your competitors. Instead, be bold and go where no one has gone before. Don’t be afraid to experiment with new things – don’t be afraid to fail.  An experiment is still a success even if the test fails to give you a desired outcome.  So then you just iterate and experiment again. Edison certainly “failed” over a thousand times and look what he achieved. Go create new paths and you just might discover something valuable you otherwise might not have tried before.

What Jim Collins Learned at West Point

I am a big fan of Jim Collins who is the best-selling business book author of books such as “Good to Great” or “Built to Last.” I recently read in Inc. Magazine that Jim Collins was on a two-year appointment on the campus of the United States Military Academy at West Point and he noted that life at West Point was extremely tough, with a demanding regimen governing almost every aspect of the cadets’ lives. Moreover, he noticed that cadets were regularly “failing” at their tasks.  Collins learned greatly from this experience on what makes West Point graduates so successful as this exchange proves:

“Let’s talk about failure,” Collins said. “How many of you have experienced failure?” 

“Failure is a part of life here,” said a diminutive female cadet, Kiley Hunkler. “There’s a recurring sense of inadequacy.”

“From the outside, it looks like everything here is difficult. You keep getting decked. So why do you keep getting back up?” Collins asked the group.

“It’s better to fail here and have other people help you get it right than to fail in Afghanistan, where the consequences could be catastrophic,” said another cadet, Christer Horstman.

“Here, everybody knows it’s a learning experience,” said Hunkler.

Learn From Your Failures

Aspiring to fail might seem like a strange mindset for sales or marketing executives to adopt – why would we willingly strive to fail? The key is to build a culture of experimentation where failing is acceptable and is viewed learning experience. Sales and marketing organizations need to build a culture of failing fast and accepting the results – both good and bad – that come with experimentation. So what if something doesn’t work as you thought it would this time around? You are now one step closer to discovering what really works.

I’d like to end with some of my favorite quotes regarding failure. Each and every one of these individuals are historically remembered as great successes; yet, they all experienced abject failure at one point in their lives. They all learned from their failures – you can too!

Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fall.

– Confucius

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. That is why I succeed.

– Michael Jordan

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

– Samuel Beckett

Failure provides the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently.

– Henry Ford

Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortune; but great minds rise above them.

– Washington Irving

Only those who dare to fail greatly can achieve greatly.

– Robert F. Kennedy