Dan Newcome on technology

I'm bringing cyber back

Failure is not the goal

with 3 comments

“Fail often” is a recurring mantra among many startup thought leaders, but there is a disconnect between the meaning of the phrase and the semantics that it is intended to convey in the context of startups that has been grating on me.

I understand the intent of statements like this, but I really think that the oversimplification of the creative process is starting to hurt us unconsciously. Mindless failure is not productive, and since our mantra is to fail, it makes it ok to give up too easily. What we should be saying is that we should try things that could fail more often–be unafraid to fail, which does imply that we will fail more often, but I think is better connected to what we are really trying to achieve. When I sit down to play guitar, I don’t say “I want to play more bad notes”, but I know that I won’t learn more challenging material without doing so in the process.

Seth Godin said “good ideas come from bad ideas”. Although I reject the notion that an idea is either good or bad intrisically, the underlying theme is that ideas that work are necessarily a subset of all ideas that are on the table. It turns out that the most effective–and in many cases the only–way of finding the ones that work is to try them all.

I would say that it might be wise to try out only that have some hope of succeeding, but it seems overly optimistic that anyone can achieve this without inadvertently killing some good ideas in the process.

The goal is not to fail–the goal is to learn.

Written by newcome

January 28, 2010 at 10:59 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. The phrase “fail often” wouldn’t catch our attention if it wasn’t a little bit shocking and counterintuitive. Most geeks don’t take it literally to mean, “I shall fail and do it repeatedly”.

    I think of it as a mantra to demystify the possibility of failure and to remind myself to focus on doing rather than worrying how the effort will be judged.


    January 29, 2010 at 1:20 am

  2. I always preferred phrasing it as “fail fast”. I think the real intent of the phrase has always been, ‘dont waste time’, not necessarily as means to justify failure.

    Try something, learn from it, try something else – but do it quickly.


    January 29, 2010 at 1:36 am

  3. I have a friend who has been ‘failing’ since 2004 in a startup he cofounded. They are all there making just enough to pay themselves a modest salary.

    Oh, but they ‘Have all that equity.’
    And venture backing.
    And just now going on 7 YEARS OF MEDIOCRITY.
    Yikes eyedruther move on after 2 years OF MEDIOCRITY.
    He is ‘failing slowly’ as his life slips by.

    See, this is the other side of ‘failure’ — the slow march of mediocrity towards — what — a final revelation of “Well I just wasted XX years when I could have failed faster and by now found a winner.”

    I feel sorry for the guy, because — the venture didnt fail enough to stimulate a move-on to a better idea. It succeeded *just enough* to tease my friend into 7 years of HELLISH STILLBORN MEDIOCRITY.

    So I would say this:
    1) Fail fast
    2) if you notice you’re failing slowly, FAIL FASTER and try again
    3) unless you’re happy on $50k a years and ‘All that equity’


    January 29, 2010 at 2:11 am

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