We hear it a lot, especially at startups that want to celebrate their ability to move quickly. Fail fast. Fail early. Fail often.
This sounds well and good and I understand the core idea they’re championing. Failure is the only way to learn what you do not know. It’s often the quickest way to an answer. But failure shouldn’t be a goal. It’s not something we should be striving for. I think this idea has started to get warped for some, as it’s infiltrated the headspace of millions of ambitious individuals.
Here’s why you shouldn’t be trying to fail fast.
1. You’re not ready.
The truth is, more often than not, we fail simply because we’re not ready. We don’t know enough, we haven’t worked hard enough, and we didn’t put in the time yet. If you’re failing because you didn’t prepare, you’re missing the point.
The idea of failing fast is one of exploring the new, finding answers where there are none. If you truly put in the time and effort that a venture needed and you fail, then you might learn something. If you didn’t then you’re only going to pick up answers to questions you probably already know, but simply didn’t take the time to uncover.
One way to define failure is the omission of expected or required action. You didn’t do what was expected, so you failed. That teaches you only one thing: you weren’t ready.
2. You lower expectations.
Another problem with the idea of failing fast is that it gives you an out to embrace mediocrity. You lower your expectations and take it easy, because, after all, it’s ok to fail. Failure is good! No need to stress, worry, or put in your best effort. You’ll just try again.
You have to ask yourself, are your failures because you’re still trying to find answers to legitimate questions or are you sloppy? Lazy? Apathetic? If you’re failing because you’re half-assing it, then just stop.
The point of failing fast isn’t supposed to be a pass on quality work, it’s an expectation when things are unknown and there isn’t an alternative. Make sure you’re not falling into this trap of mediocrity.
3. You fail in the wrong things.
Failure teaches you lessons, for sure, but failing isn’t for big things, it’s for little ones. It’s for finding answers to concrete questions. You don’t want your entire business venture to fail. You don’t want to change your entire strategy, brand, market, or product every day. These are huge decisions that should be made far more deliberately. Sure you can pivot, but you shouldn’t be pivoting all the time.
Failure works when you’re exploring the new, when you don’t know what you don’t know. When the risk of failure isn’t life or career threatening, it’s a chance to learn. When failure lives in this domain, it’s a powerful tool. When it creeps into the bigger parts of your work or life, you should do your best to avoid it.
Failure is good as long as it doesn’t become a habit.
~ Michael Eisner
Failure isn’t supposed to be fun. It isn’t something we should celebrate. Sure, we can learn from failure, but we should stop acting like it’s a good thing. No matter how you slice it, failure sucks. It means you didn’t achieve the goal you set out to. You didn’t find the answer you were seeking.
At the same time, failure shouldn’t stop you from trying again, it’s not a reason to give up, but you can’t get carried away. Failure isn’t the best strategy to live by. There’s value in it, but it can also snowball into bad habits and even worse excuses. What we don’t want, is to create an environment where preparation, expectation, and critical thinking are overcome by the need to fail fast.
We don’t want a culture where failure is the norm. After all, who really wants to fail?
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