“Fail forward, fail fast, fail often,” is one of the most repeated mantras of the weird place I call Startuplandia. While the rest of the universe seeks to avoid failure, we’re taught that failing is not only okay, it’s actually essential in our journeys as entrepreneurs. Multiple failures are even (paradoxically) seen as a reason to invest in a team rather than a reason against investing.
At first glance it would seem that startup entrepreneurs are taught that failure is okay because, realistically, it’s inevitable. With some sources claiming that 90% of startups fail, it’s essential to build a culture that works failure into the system.
Otherwise, no one would ever start down the startup path.
Additionally, failure is seen as a necessary step for entrepreneurs who are acting in a space where the rules are constantly being remade and for which, up until very recently, there was no formal education. Experimentation and subsequent failures, then, are much more important in startups than in traditional businesses that have had the same clear rules for years and years.
A deeper look at the “fail often” ethos unearths the popular saying “What would you do if you could not fail?” In Warren Berger’s new book, A More Beautiful Question, in which he spoke with top innovators across the tech world – this phrase came up more than any other.
What would you do if you could not fail?
When taken as a rhetorical exercise meant to push us outside the constraints of our own fears, the question is immensely valuable. Taking away the our fears means we can think the kinds of big thoughts that are needed to innovate, to disrupt, to truly change the world.
However, it seems that in some startup circles, this rhetorical brain exercise has been perverted from a hard look at the things keeping us back from taking major risks into an excuse to not put everything on the line.
Oh, it didn’t work out? Congratulations!
By devaluing the pain of failure, we’re devaluing our companies. It’s time to stop mindlessly repeating the mantra and, instead, ask the hard questions that serial entrepreneur Jonathan Fields asks in Berger’s book. They are:
- What if I fail – how will I recover?
- What if I do nothing?
- What if I succeed?
Rather than fetishizing failure, these questions push us to think hard about the potential real-world consequences of our actions. They also put us in a stronger position to move forward when, statistically speaking, our hopes and dreams will be crushed along with those of 90% of our peers.
Getting in front of those fears in order to succeed means planning for the inevitable, so, founders, this is my challenge to you: Rather than mindlessly repeating the mantra and patting each other on the back for failures, take a couple of hours out of your busy day and truly map out what “failing” means and looks like both for you personally and for your company.
And by taking that step, you’re one step further from becoming a Fail Fast statistic.