Failure

An article by David Brooks. Last updated

Failure feels awful. It does. 

“Fail fast, and fail often!”

No thanks!

We all want to be successful. Nobody signs up in life to fail. That’s not a healthy goal in life. It’s like having a goal to stub your toe every day.

But we will fail. We fail every single day.  Sometimes we stub our toes.

Over, and over, again.

The problem with failing isn’t the act of failing. It’s not the shortcoming. It’s not even that you made mistakes. 

Failure is a problem when we don’t admit it, learn from it, and change behavior.

“Nope, that wasn’t my fault!”

“I didn’t make a mistake.”

“I just followed directions.”

“It was all because of Steve!”

In the words of Silverchair, “mistakes don’t mean a thing if you don’t regret them.” 

Some failures are small-scale things. Others are business-crippling.

Let’s say I don’t land a client. What does that mean for my studio? If I do that too many times we don’t get to eat. One missed client is probably not the end of the world. But if you’re just starting your studio or freelance career, it could be.

Pinpointing the Failure

But where did the actual failure happen? Was it the style of the pitch? Did we not understand their goals? Did we not present to our competencies?

What was it?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

When you fail at something important, do an autopsy. You need to understand why you failed. And you need to take steps to never fail like that again if at all possible.

Repeat that process over and over again.

Failure -> Assess -> Try again.

But it may not be that simple.

Failure Is Multi-Layered

A single failure won’t usually send you to financial ruin or kill your product. There is often a trail of smaller failures leading up to the catastrophe. 

Look at all the points of failure around a failed product launch.

Did you start with the right audience?

Did you start with the right problem?

Did you start with the right solution?

Did you have enough information to solve it well?

Did you understand the process of launching your product?

Did you have enough financial momentum to launch?

Did you have the right people involved?

Were the people engaged in the project and on target?

Did you get enough quality feedback at the right times?

Did you arrive and then follow-through on a design direction?

Did your development team understand and implement the designs? 

Did the development team build for performance?

Was development architecture designed with scalability?

Was the development done with security in mind?

Did your audience understand the solution you presented?

Did you gather enough analytics data to make informed decisions?

Did your writer understand the business model well enough to explain it?

Did you properly communicate your product in marketing copy?

Did you build enough runway around your launch efforts?

Did you understand the complexities of acquiring users?

Did you understand the advertising options for this product?

Did you pick the correct advertising methods?

Depending on the situation, you could add piles of additional questions. So when we talk about a “failed product launch” you have a variety of places to asses. Failure feels binary, but there’s a lot of movement in many directions. 

We often overlook many points of failure to “keep our eye on the prize.” 

So if failure is multi-layered, it absolves us at the highest level. Oh, you had a failed product launch? Where was your point of failure? Was it a singular failure or systemic? (Was it just one thing, or were there a list of failures?)

When you fail, do an autopsy. What you discover might even help you reverse the failure if you catch it in time.

Maybe your solution was a bit clumsy. How can you polish and streamline it?

Maybe you didn’t understand your advertising channels. Look them over again and re-focus your effort. 

There’s a solution for every problem in the list above. But, the more failures you indicate, the harder it is to fix the larger failure. 

That’s when failure starts to look permanent. 

What If The Failure Is Permanent? 

So you raised $3 million, built the wrong project, burned your funds, and nobody used your product. 

That can happen. 

In systemic failure, doing a project autopsy is how you grow. You need to know what went wrong so you don’t do it again. 

Easier said than done, right? Large-scale failure is hard stuff. $3 million in lost investments might just lead you to change careers entirely.

“Failing big” has a higher potential for personal growth and learning. But don’t tank your business on purpose! 

I lost two major clients because I didn’t call out inefficiencies and incompetencies that I thought were out of my control. One of those projects launched, the other did not. 

Were those failures my fault? Yes. 

But not because I was messing up. They were my fault because I didn’t call attention to problems. Those failures are on me because I didn’t stop the burning. I turned away, even if unintentionally.

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

Passing blame and making excuses stunt your growth. When you choose that path you’re less helpful to your team and your career will take a hit. 

I’m not saying you have to own failures that aren’t yours. But if you were part of a failing project, you’re part of the problem on some level. 

“No, my team was to blame!” 

Maybe so. But where you failed was in not calling attention to the problem in a productive way.  Or maybe you hired the wrong team. 

Or maybe you’re just pointing fingers.

Worth noting: I’m not saying you should “throw anyone under the bus.” 

Be helpful and serve your team. If there’s a problem, be part of the solution. But always point yourself in the direction of growth.

Think it through. If the problem is never you, you’ll have to fire everyone around you if failures continue. The odds will always be stacked against you. Nobody will ever care. If you manage to hire talent, they’ll either leave or be fired.

If you set out to solve problems, and you do it well, people will come. Your project is bigger than you. 

The chance of success is there. 

Failure is a setback.

You haven’t failed fatally until you quit trying. The key is to know when you should quit.

If you liked this, I recommend Seth Godin’s “The Dip.” It’s all about finding which projects are worth taking on, and knowing when to quit before you start.

Get My Newest Content In Your Inbox

Sign up now and I'll also send you some of my most popular articles on design-thinking, photography, and running an agency. Not a drop of spam.

Categorised in: ,

A Photo of David Brooks

David Brooks is the owner of the small creative studio, Northward Compass, based out of Orlando, Florida. He writes electronic and ambient music as Light The Deep, and fantasy stories about a place called Elerien.

© Copyright 2005 - 2019 David N Brooks. All rights reserved.