The Best Advice on Failure

Insights on feeling like a failure from Seth Godin, Ben Pieratt, and Jonathan Harris.

Tanner Christensen

The best advice undoubtedly comes from those who have been in your shoes, who have struggled and later succeeded.

When you look at the work you are doing in your life and you see some distant image of where you want to be, who is already there?

For me, that distance where I envision myself is a bit crowded. There are people I have been looking up to for over a decade now stationed there. Seth Godin for marketing, Ben Pieratt for design, Jonathan Harris for just damn good work, to name a few.

Recently, as my efforts have begun to feel fruitless and I, as a result, useless, I reached out to these inspirations of mine. I asked them a simple and straight-forward question: “When looking at the successes of my peers, and seeing that my work has not yet gotten to that level, should I give up?”

A few of them got back to me with their own tidbits of wisdom and insights on the matter of feeling like a failure. I wanted to share their wisdom in hopes of inspiring and motivating you to keep going, were you to find yourself disheartened by your failures.

No matter what type of work you do, no matter where you are at in your career, or how far away you feel from that place of success in the distance, I hope the wisdom of these conversations can help you feel empowered and guided.

Without further ado.

“Don’t measure yourself by your friends.” — Seth Godin

Seth Godin has been a best-selling author for as long as I can remember. Before I was even born he was teaching marketers and writers what to do and what not to do.

Seth told me: “Don’t measure yourself by your friends and don’t ask someone like me to tell you what’s working and what’s not. Learn to see. Test. Experiment. And be patient.”

“Take interest in the things you find interesting.” — Ben Pieratt

Ben is the former brand designer of Svpply (which was bought by eBay). Ben was able to give explicit feedback about my work individually, but he also offered some inspirational wisdom from a broader angle.

Ben explained: “Take interest in the things you find interesting. I know this sounds redundant, but think of it this way: 10 different people can pick up a copy of the New York Times, and none of them will read the same things or read them in the same order. Some people will gravitate towards politics and sports. Others will skip ahead to the Arts section, then Obituaries, etc.

But how often do we pay attention to how our eyes flitter across the page? How often do we take notice of the things we don’t notice?”

Ben continues: “Pay attention to your level of interest when you’re doing your various kinds of work. What work makes you happiest? What work do you find the most frustrating? Take mental notes and slowly edit out the parts of your work that aren’t interesting and dedicate yourself entirely to the parts that make you happy, because, regardless of what they are, they are unique to you.

Not only will this kind of reduction make you happier, but it will also build your competitive edge.”

“Do things you love, so even if they don’t get tons of attention, you won’t care, because you’ll love doing them anyway.” — Jonathan Harris

My favorite response was from Jonathan Harris, creator of Cowbird and We Feel Fine.

Here’s what Jonathan had to say about feeling like a failure:

“The main advice I would give you is to do things you love, so even if they don’t get tons of [recognition], you won’t care, because you’ll love doing them anyway. And they’ll feel more honest too, because the intention behind them will be pure.

Very few things get huge. Remember that. It has a lot to do with luck, timing, and the particular vagaries of what the ‘zeitgeist’ craves at any particular moment. I wouldn’t get caught up in chasing the zeitgeist — it’s exhausting. Don’t compare yourself to others — that’s a game that never ends, no matter how “successful” you get. Some of the most “successful” people I know are also the most insecure — best not to get caught up in that cycle. I like what Bob Dylan had to say about success: ‘A successful man is someone who wakes up in the morning and goes to sleep at night, and in between does what he wants to do.’”

Jonathan ends with: “In the meantime, you can think about this quote I recently saw written on a bathroom wall in Vermont:”

“Don’t do what you think the world needs; do what you love. The world needs more people who do what they love.”

Take it from those who have spent years doing great work: the best work you can do is that which you don’t compare to others, which you’re naturally interested in, and that you simply love doing.

That’s how you meet success. That’s how you triumph.