The F-word is not a bad word

Failure is not a bad word.

When you hear it, you cringe. When you see it, you run for cover. When you smell it, you throw up. It can bring a strong person to their knees and make them cry. It’s the dreaded F-word: failure.

Since you and I were young, we were raised with the mentality that failure should be avoided. All throughout school from kindergarten to college, the student who got the least number of failures (or wrong answers) got the highest mark. We carried this must-win mentality at our workplace. The employee who gets promoted is the one who made the ‘right’ connections and the ‘right’ moves, with the least number of visible failures. But what they taught us in school is wrong [I’m sure this isn’t the first time you heard this (:  ].

Failure is always an option

Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, hosts of MythBusters

One of my favorite TV shows is MythBusters. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out! It’s a perfect mixture of popular science and explosive fun to prove or disprove myths. Early on in the show’s development, co-host Adam Savage came up with the phrase “Failure is always an option.”  Savage wanted the film crew, producers and other people involved in the production to always explore, test and uncover answers and solutions. He wanted to communicate to everyone that failure is an opportunity for learning. Failure builds character. And it takes character to become successful. In the video below, Savage even owns up to some of his biggest failures early in his career.

If you’re too lazy to watch the video, let me summarize what Savage said about failures: “I feel bad sometimes about messing things up. But it is also what makes me good at what I do. And if I didn’t go down those paths to screw up, I would not be enjoying the life I had right now. I had to screw up those jobs. Those were vital for me to do.” To Savage, failure is necessary to achieve success. Behind every success is a string of failures.

Failure is the path to success

Nothing illustrates this better than Silicon Valley. When you think of Silicon Valley, you probably think of all the successful high-growth technology companies that live and thrive there such as Apple, Google, eBay and HP. Have you ever wondered what made Silicon Valley so successful as a center of high-tech growth? Author Mike Malone puts it like this: “Outsiders think of Silicon Valley as a success, but it is, in truth, a graveyard. Failure is Silicon Valley’s greatest strength. Every failed product or enterprise is a lesson stored in the collective memory. We don’t stigmatize failure; we admire it. Venture capitalists like to see a little failure in the resumes of entrepreneurs.” Silicon Valley is known as a center of significant success, but also significant failure. You can’t have one without the other.

Many other great successes started out as failures. Explorer Christopher Columbus failed when he set out to find a new route to India; instead, he found America. Out of failure, Champagne was invented by a monk (named Dom Perignon) when a bottle of wine accidentally had a secondary fermentation. 3M invented glue that was considered a failure because it did not stick. But that glue’s failure to stick became the glue used for the Post-it note, which proved to be a phenomenon. And, one of my favorite examples, chocolate chip cookies was invented by accident by Ruth Wakefield when she ran out of baker’s chocolate and substitute it for crushed up chocolate chunks.

Anything is possible

What Columbus, Perignon, Wakefield and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs understand is that acknowledging that failure is an option allows you to explore new possibilities and new worlds. You open yourself up to curiosity and wonder. It allows you to think outside of the box, to push the limit of what’s possible. It keeps your mind active and not passive, to ask tough questions, even though some people think your questions are dumb. It gives you faith to believe that anything is possible.

But, all too often, we fear failure to the point that we don’t make the change we know we need to make or we give up even before we started. As I mentioned before, I hear people talk about how they have the greatest idea for a startup. But, you have all these excuses for not working on the idea. To those people, I share with you a quote from Buddha – there are only two mistakes we should fear: not starting and not finishing.  Giving up because of an overwhelming fear of failure leads to regret, the kind of regret that eats away at you for a very long time. Disappointments, embarrassments and hurt feelings from your failures heal with time; but the regrets about the things we did not do are inconsolable.

Everyone fails at something

Failure is not a bad word. In fact, especially for entrepreneurs, failure is the stepping stone toward success. It is an opportunity to explore new oceans, to invent new things and to discover your true character. Will you crumble under failure? Or, like a phoenix, will you rise from the ashes of your failures and find success? Don’t let the fear of failure stop you from building your great startup idea, or achieving your dreams. But if you do fail, have the same attitude and thinking as Michael Jordan, “I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.

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Written by

Lean startup advocate, startup generalist, speaker and startup mentor based in Toronto, Canada. Ready to help you at http://sohelpful.com/ramlijohn.