Failure is overrated

The only thing that comes close to Silicon Valley’s obsession with success is its obsession with failure. “Failing fast” and learning from failure are touted as virtues. Great. Failure happens, it’s inevitable when you take risks. But let’s be honest, failing may be unavoidable but it sucks. I’ve worked at successful companies and not so successful companies, and the successful ones are much more fun, much more educational, and much more memorable than the failures.

To paraphrase (and invert) Tolstoy “All unsuccessful companies are alike; each successful company is successful in its own way.” 1 Successful companies know how to inspire their people and overcome setbacks. They make their customers happy and build on their successes. Unsuccessful companies are most unique and creative in developing ways to mess up and circle the drain.

Some of the key things I’ve seen as unsuccessful companies suffer as they fail:

  • Believing in magic bullets. When an organization struggles, a belief takes hold that if they could only fix ONE thing, if this ONE customer would sign the big deal, the ship would turn around and they’d be full steam toward world domination. But it doesn’t work that way. Failures beget failures. Loss piles up on loss. You can’t fix it with a simple solution. If you could. you wouldn’t be staring into the abyss.
  • The thousand yard stare. After a string of failures — deals lost, customer churn rates going up, NPS scores going down — the troops give up and adopt a survival strategy. All the talk of big wins and lights at the end of the tunnel and corners to be turned and strategies to be executed become background noise as people conserve energy for their interviews and they do what they need to do to avoid the ax. There’s no more oomph to give, no energy left, no more belief in the mission. It’s a death march to an exit no one was hoping for.
  • Orthodoxy. Closely related to the magic bullet, this is a deep belief that breaking the rules is good, but not at this time in the company’s evolution. You’ll hear talk of “putting on your big boy pants”, “executing”, “processes and procedures”, and, the mystical belief in “Core Values.” None of these things are bad, in fact, they are all good. But companies that are floundering grab anything that looks like a lifejacket as they take on water and hang onto to it as they sink. No hearts will go on.

There’s a time and a place for failure. And you CAN learn from failure. But nothing succeeds like success.


1. TIL there’s an Anna Karenina principle that states: “An endeavor in which a deficiency in any one of a number of factors dooms it to failure”