As some of you may know, I participated in four sports starting around 8 years of age up through high school. I even played baseball for a few years in college at UCA. Three out of four of those sports were team sports. I love team sports for a whole host of reasons.
However, when you are on a team, losing is twice as challenging. I not only felt like I failed personally, but we all failed. The burden of the whole team failing to achieve success was always painful. All the hard work and sacrifice. My teammates and I worked hard to win, but it wasn’t enough.
I hated that!
In the startup community in recent years, failing has been portrayed by some as a badge of honor, an essential part of starting a business, something that’s anticipated. I’ve read hundreds of articles and listened to many co-founder testimonies about their early failures. Many of these are celebrated like an obvious scar that gives the entrepreneur a cool story to tell. Some in the business media have picked up on this and, in the “everybody gets a trophy era,” made it into a badge of courage and bravery.
Failure is portrayed as cool, an essential element of being the coolest thing in the world… a startup entrepreneur. Don’t you love how French makes everything sound sexy, romantic and mysterious. Ironically, the word “failure” also has French origins. It originally meant “non-occurrence.” In my Southern business dictionary which, full disclosure, contains some slang and made-up words, that essentially means nothing happened. Failure doesn’t refer to the valiant effort, the hard work or trying your best. It describes the ultimate outcome. The whole point of the effort. Pardon my French, but failure means our intended outcome, our goal, our success was a “non-occurrence.” Does this sound like something that entrepreneurs should aspire to?
Let’s be clear about failure. It’s not a goal; it’s not required; and it’s definitely not a badge of honor. Failure sucks! Failure is not courageous or brave. Running toward the explosion or risking your own life to save another are acts of bravery. Producing a product that solves a meaningful problem despite all the odds, trials and challenges is courageous. Failure is neither of these. Many pro athletes have stated that it was their fear of losing, rather than their passion for winning, that fueled their success. Plenty of Hall of Famers will tell you that, while they cherished the victories, it’s the losses that they remember most.
However, failure can be a temporary result on the road to success. It can be something from which we learn in order to make improvements that lead to success. In fact, I believe there are only two redeeming qualities to failure. First, if there is anything that we can learn from failing, we should do so and make the necessary adjustments that improve our odds of future success. Second, just as being in the dark valley helps us appreciate the view from the sun-soaked mountaintop, failure can serve to help us appreciate future successes. Being humble and appreciative are key elements to servant leadership. Honestly, if this is all that results from the experience of failing, then the effort may have been worth it.
Please don’t take this to mean that we should not take a business risk because we might fail. That’s not at all what I mean. Risk is an inherent part of business, and life, for that matter. We should never be afraid of risk, but we should certainly study it, weigh it and manage it as best we can. Should it come, we must be prepared to deal with it.
While it is a common milestone on the road to success, failure it is not an end unto itself. The only things good about failure are the knowledge, humility and appreciation that should result from it that will improve our odds of eventual success. The message for young entrepreneurs is this: if you have to endure failure along the way, tolerate it, if you must, but never accept it. Failure is never, ever a goal, a requirement or a badge of honor on the road to success.
If you begin to accept failure, rather than tolerate it, you’re done. We must have hope to fuel our passion. Our passion wills us to recover and try again should we fail.