2015 / 16 November

The personality of a failure

Ever since I was a child, I wanted to be the best at something. I was never able to decide what, I just had an underlying desire to be the best. Unfortunately, I was a fat kid, so most sports were out, and although I was bright, I never really paid attention in class, so academia was also out. I have a very short attention span and a low tolerance for boredom, so finding a long term career has also proven to be problematic.

What I have managed to do is spend most of my life trying new things, exploring the world, taking chances and adding to my repertoire of skills, even if I have not yet mastered any. I have compared my career trajectory to some people I went to school with and, while some of them are in the upper echelons of their respective industries, I still struggle to define what it is I do. But I’ve been lucky enough to do things that others would only dream of, because they were a risk or they weren’t considered ‘normal’.

There is a well known saying that it takes 10,000 hours to master something. If that is the case, I have become a master of tangential development 15 times over. Like a moth attracted to flickering lights, I have bounced around and bumped my head numerous times. But through the unerring desire to find the light, I have discovered that I am fascinated by new ideas and problem solving.

This mode of thinking naturally aligns me with the ‘entrepreneurial’ crowd — those who aren’t happy in the status quo, are curious and naturally opportunistic. In the last few months, I have spent more time attending conferences, reading, analysing and meeting people who self-identify as entrepreneurs.

What I have found is that although many entrepreneurs pride themselves on being ‘different’ because they don’t fit into existing systems, they’re actually all alike. The similarity is in the difference, and they’re unique just like everyone else.

The one trend that has started to emerge is that groups of entrepreneurs make a point to ‘celebrate the failures’. This is a really strange notion to me. I believe in taking strategic risks, I believe in trying new things, but I do not accept failure as a virtue. There are countless things that I have tried in the past that have not achieved what I set out to do, but along the way, there have been many achievements and plenty of mistakes to learn from.

The simplest case in point was trying to start Undercoat. Financially, it has not become self-sustaining, even though I still believe in its potential as no one has captured the market thus far (side note: if anyone wants to tackle it with me, I’ll need $150,000 and a couple of staff…) But in the three years I worked on it, I was able to help produce 11 magazines, 4 podcasts, host two exhibitions and share the work of more than 500 artists around the world, many of whom may not have found a voice otherwise. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a steep learning curve and an endeavour I am still immensely proud of.

To me, failure suggests you have walked away with nothing. So if we celebrate the failures, we are giving permission to celebrate whims and poorly conceived ideas. It gives us permission to randomly try things without accountability. That is dangerous. A group celebrating failure will only continue to fail, because they establish it as the norm.

If I am going to be lumped into the ‘entrepreneur’ category, then I would rather see a change in the conversation and establishing a new vocabulary. That we celebrate things we’ve learned along the way, and to never accept mediocrity. That it’s ok to take risks, so long as you can walk away having learned something or achieved something you wouldn’t otherwise have. That you know when to walk away at all. Because trial and error is very different to failure and it’s important to understand why. One is definitive, the other is iterative.

Until this vocabulary changes, I will struggle to consider myself an entrepreneur. I will not celebrate my failures because I know there is more to do, more to learn and more to achieve. There is always more, and that’s what excites me.

I may never find the one thing I can be the best at, and perhaps I’m not required to. Which is ok. Trial and error is fun, because at the very least, you can walk away knowing that you gave it a go, learning and improving along the way. And that’s what we should be celebrating, because that is the furthest thing from failure.

  • Hi Pete. Good to read your ruminations, thanks.

    Have to ask though, does anyone really celebrate failures? Or is that some nihilistic variant of needing to be a risk-taker? For me at least, failure is: a) inevitable, so not worth denying, fighting or being surprised by; b) Draining, so not to be tolerated for very long; and c) It’s valuable so, as you say, lessons must be extracted and then move on.

    Leap without fear. Celebrate the successes. Religiously extract the lessons of all trials, including failures. Apologize as appropriate those who believed you and were disappointed by the outcome. And don’t be afraid to declare something a flop even if you’re not entirely sure it is (i.e. if in doubt, kick it out!).

    BTW, perhaps your niche/destiny is in an area/career that doesn’t exist yet. Seems entirely possible to me. Being innovative and patient, that’s a tricky line to walk.

  • Pete Saunders / (Author) November 16, 2015 AT 9:10 PM

    Hi Tim,

    great thoughts! I agree that failure is inevitable and a part of life.

    What really concerns me is the rhetoric that’s wrapped around it. I understand the underlying message being don’t be scared to take risks and go for what you believe in, but there is surely a better way to convey that than by saying to accept and celebrate the failures? Not sure what the answer is, just my observations.

    As for your last point: I feel like I reinvent myself and what I do on a nearly daily basis, so it’s likely wherever I’m meant to end up is a place that doesn’t exist yet. I’m too stubborn to accept otherwise!

  • Excellent post. Can I riff off your thoughts a bit? This is going to be pretty bad. I can? Really? Aw, cheers, mate. you’re aces.

    Why would a person ‘celebrate failure’?

    One answer, as you said: because they feel that they have learned something from it.

    A second answer: because they feel they have gained something else from it – moral fibre, perhaps. Or rather, that the fact that they are able to celebrate failure means that they have within them a stoic kind of virtue. That this was a test, and they passed because they didn’t stay in their bedrooms weeping.
    If they keep that feeling to themselves, I suppose that’s fine. If they’re loud about it, perhaps not so much, and they might want to go back to the sacred text of stiff-upper-lipness, Kipling’s “If”, and reread the lines:
    “If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
    And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;”

    There is a third kind of celebration of failure, though. It’s not always easy to tell from the second kind. The sacred text of that kind (for me) is Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus”. There is no hope for Sisyphus of reprieve from his eternal, absurd, meaningless toil, but acknowledging that fact, and raging against it, is enough. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy”, he concludes, and I’ve been trying to do that. That great contemporary thinker, The Oatmeal, has a fantastic example of this at the end of this page: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/running

    (I think it says a lot that I had to look up every source I mentioned except for The Oatmeal).