Mar 06, 2017 / On Failure


So this week, I will talk about Failure. And since lessons from Scott Adams are pretty fresh in the head, I think I will build on top of that.

The prompt for this one has come from someone who interned with me for a bit when I was a planner at an advertising agency. Like all things in life, she has moved on, I have moved on, but we’ve remained friends (sort of). She shared this image and asked me if I’ve ever written about failure.

I thought about it and I realised that I havent. Not explicitly. I keep ranting about things that dont go my way but I havent talked about failure per se. And this is when I have had glorious falls over the years and have failed at a million things. I have failed to start (most people know me as an idea machine but an execution dud). And when I have started, I have failed to finish (again, a poor finisher). And when I have finished, the output has failed to live up to the reason or the expectation with which it was initiated (failure at setting expectations, failure at execution? overall mediocrity? Side note: read this rant by an unknown woman — at some point in time, I will add this to my newest project — modern love india. See this).

So, here is a longish rant on failure and failing.

If you ask me, failure could mean one of two things. Let me call these Type A and Type B.

  • Type A. deviation from expected outcome (success vs failure — I wanted this letter to make myself a better man by getting inputs from select friends and I will fail if I dont become better)
  • Type B. inaction (different from deviation — this is where I did not even start. outcome is not important. We dint start in the first place)

And then there are degrees of failure.

For example, I wanted my first book to sell 100000 copies but I sold only 2000. Did I fail? Per Type A, I did. Per Type B, I did not. I shipped. I got the book published. Staying with writing, I keep saying, to be able to deliver one good piece of text, I have to write a thousand pieces of text (law of averages). Now, if I dont write those 1000 pieces, I would face a Type B failure. And since I did not write anything, there wont be any metric to measure the failure (or success).

Thing is, Type A ones are easy to spot and easy to work on. But Type B is little known. Hidden in plain sight. Behind the negative thoughts that clutter our head. They masquerade as “yet another episode of BBT before I write”; as “I will start working out from next year”; as “this has been done by so many others”; as “I am not as talented” and other such forms. Anything that makes your take the side of inaction, is Type B.

And Type B is exactly we ought to reduce. In fact look at things as wide and as unrelated as Darwin’s survival of fittest, MVP from the world of startups, Nike’s tagline Just Do It, lessons from the Panchtantra and other fables. Each has this thread that asks you to act. Get away from inaction. Minimize your Type B failure.

The point, ladies and gents is to do. Remove the Type B inaction from lives. Idea is to act. To do it. To err on the side of action. To make a mistake. Like Will Smith says, die trying. Like Steve Jobs said, “real artists ship.”

The obvious thing you’d come back with, is, what if you make a mistake? What would the critics say? How would the world perceive your output as? Will it embarrass you? And the biggest of them all, will I fail? I have one line answer for all such questions. Do it first and then worry about the outcome. And honestly, the worst piece of text you create will be better than the bestseller that the worst critic never wrote. You would probably face Type A failure (or it not meeting expectations) but you would have conquered Type B failure.

I have three arguments in favour of action.

  • Growth: Once you put your work out there, you will find help from places that you cant even imagine.
  • Rewards: May be writing makes your thick skinned. Most things I write fail to rouse emotions the way I want them to (Type A). I fail 99% times. But then the rewards you get on the other side, when that 1% works in your favour are huge. So that is exciting.
  • Opportunities: Remember Scott Adams’s systems approach that I spoke of last week? Each piece of action teaches you something that you can use to ensure that you tide over Type A. But, it has to start somewhere. No?

And in case you are in the mood for a video, do see Anton Ego’s “review” of Gusteau’s where he talks about critics and more importantly, creators! The ones who make new things. The ones that are told that they’ve failed (to conform). And here’s a secret. Everytime I get a book review that tells me that I have failed, I go watch Anton talk about Gusteau. Or Steve Jobs at Stanford.

Thats about it for this week. In one line, act. Dont worry about failure. Act.

May be its time you looked at your most glorious Type A failures and see why you failed. Think on how did you tide over it? What did you learn from it? What can I learn from it?

And may be, if you are sitting on the fence with some project, move the needle (get over the Type B failure). And if I could be of any help in putting any of these two together, please do let me know and I will be happy to help.

Oh, one more thing. Thank You KD for the prompt. Hope this is what you were looking for :)

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