I Love Failure and You Should Too

I’m so rubbish at golf. Came 94th out of 96 last Saturday. Aarrgghh! (I take some solace from the fact that there were twelve bad boys and girls who failed to return their scorecard, presumably because if it isn’t recorded it never happened, right?)

I am not scared of failure. I have got used to it. As the American golfer Tom Watson famously said – “if you want to double your rate of success, double your rate of failure.” I must be getting pretty close to a major breakthrough as I have upped my failure rate significantly.

So, how do you double your rate of failure?

Well, there are two forms of failure –

Failure through action…


Failure through inaction.


Let’s take the first one first:

Failure through Action

This is absolutely forgivable. We do stuff. We review what happens. We make changes because we didn’t quite get what we wanted. Simple. What happens if someone – you’re boss, loving spouse, yourself – gives you a kick up the backside because you didn’t get the exact results you forecast? Well you could be forgiven for avoiding getting things wrong again by swerving all challenging stuff as it comes to you. This is bad.

Or you could just jab a pointy stick in your tormentor’s eye and say “there is no failure, just results I didn’t want, you numbskull.”

The more stuff you do the more you find out what works and what doesn’t. And provided the mistakes are stopped early, the learning can be extracted from them at low cost. This works in marketing. It works in most fields. Fail quickly and cheaply and you quickly build a huge reserve of knowledge on what does work. There is no success without failure. But you still need to manage risk of course. No failure should be bigger than it has to be. We should not be fearful of failure, we should be fearful of the absence of failure because that’s symptomatic of inaction which takes me nicely to …

Failure through Inaction.

This is insidious as it is often invisible. Fear of failure tends to be more focused on action: doing things and failing, rather than inaction…not doing things and failing.

Now clearly if you are observably not doing something you should be doing you will get pulled up for it. And rightly so. Where failure through inaction is at its most dangerous is when the inaction is about failure to behave in a certain way. I’m using “behave” in its neutral form – how we conduct ourselves. Nothing to do with “bad” or “good” behaviour.

I’m talking about staying inside your comfort zones: that mental straight jacket that we all have. And not taking managed risks. Not having the difficult conversations. Not reflecting and making changes. Becoming stuck in our ways. Keeping the song inside us.

Looking inside ourselves and taking the right actions may well make us and they are very unlikely to break us. It really is an asymmetric bet – the upside is bigger than the downside. If you place a small number of bets where the upside is bigger than the downside you make a bob or two. If you place hundreds of these bets, you get rich…

Of course there are risks but when you are considering doing something a wee bit “out there” ask yourself – what’s the worst that can happen? Could I get back to the pre-action reality or am I irredeemably lost at sea? How can I de-risk this?

And here’s a great question – “What’s the risk in doing nothing?” People often think doing nothing has no risk. This is seldom true.

So here’s my challenge to you for this stupidly short week. It’s in two parts –

1. Stop doing something that you thought would give you a benefit but simply isn’t. I’m talking about ACTIONS that may be difficult to stop but are FAILING and therefore should be stopped).

2. Start doing something that may take you forward. Trial it and see what happens. I’m talking about ACTIONS that may seem difficult but might help you SUCCEED. Manage the risks. Do it for a short while and review. Then make changes if necessary, and keep going.

There is no failure. It’s just feedback. And we need feedback don’t we?

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2 Responses to I Love Failure and You Should Too

  1. Hiren Patel April 26, 2011 at 6:36 am #

    Nice article Mark, inspiring as always… Why is it that whenever I’m thinking about a challenge I’m facing your articles seem to appear at the right time??? Law of attraction??? Or sheer telepathy???

    Thanks Mark, keep up the ace work…

  2. Eilidh Milnes April 26, 2011 at 6:39 am #

    Too true Mark. A speaker colleague I heard years ago, referred to feed-back as feed-forward. I loved his way of thinking and adopted the term.
    If we develop the attitude you suggest; you don’t fail you just move forward.
    Thanks again!

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