What does it mean to fail? Let's look it up. First result on DuckDuckGo search:
The condition or fact of not achieving the desired end or ends.
That's a pretty good definition. That's a definition we can work with.
But how do we know how to identify failure? What can we do once we've failed? Can we use that failure? Embrace it somehow and learn lessons from it?
I've been alive for over 40 years now and I've met and worked with people from all walks of life, in my opinion when you boil it all down there are only two types of fool:
- The fool that can't admit they are wrong
- The fool who thinks that failure is unforgivable
When you encounter either of these two types of people: Lock eyes with them, offer them a disingenuous smile and moonwalk away never breaking your gaze.
These people are dangerous.
I was close friends with someone of the first type for a good many years, from childhood in fact. He was older than me and I always assumed that his arrogance was a form of omnipotence, I thought that he never admitted failure because he never made mistakes.
In truth the man was a narcissist and played people like a Banjo simply to make them dance. He was a level 20 Bard, utterly capitivating; but not the sort of person you could count on simply because he'd rather manipulate a situation than admit that he was wrong.
As for the second type of fool, well this type of fool is buried deep in all of us.
That's because failure hurts, it proper stings.
It makes us feel like running away and not looking back.
I guess it's part of fight or flight, I'm not sure, I'm not an anthropologist - but what I do know is that this sensation is fundamentally incompatible with the situation of modern man.
Few people can operate against their base instincts, this is why the world is full of employee's and not employer's.
So what does failure mean to me?
I YOLO'd a software project maybe 8 years ago now and I did so with every waking fiber of my being. Actually it turned out that I'd bitten off more than I could chew and a number of things came into perfect alignment to ensure the project was a steaming failure.
I can trot out the excuses all day long but the second I started to admit the facts something miraculous happened.
- I didn't know as much about making software as I thought
- I assumed that I was invulnerable to stress
- I thought my opinion was the only one that mattered
- I undervalued my time and youth
After I recklessly abandoned the project, I worked on something else for a bit and I spent a bunch of time in deep reflection pondering how I could be so sure of something that went so wrong.
Then I realized that the only failure would be to not to learn from the mistakes.
I pivoted my career from IT to software development, something that my failure facilitated. I worked with a software startup and took notes on everything from the friction of the pivot points to the questionable behavior of the CEO.
That company had an eye-watering burn rate and had to pivot so many times it was stuck in a perpetual pirouette. Needless to say, the iteration I worked on failed and I had ringside seating, that was a valuable lesson in itself.
Then I moved to a company that made tools for developers and worked on massive scale systems. This American company was 3-5 years ahead of anything I'd even seen in the UK. I've worked with doctors of technology and the privately educated whereas I myself am a man from a working class family.
Talk about a square peg hammered into a round hole.
I've been force-fed humble pie on a number of occasions. The method and technology on show at the company are staggering. I fail often, I fail hard, but I still work here and the product is very successful and sells itself.
I write a lot of postmortems, a fantastic exercise that harness' the unrelenting dichotomy of failure and success in the most masterful way.
We'll discuss them in detail later.
Where were we? Oh yeah, identifying failure.
Hopefully you have a finite and measurable idea of what you want to achieve, most people do that with a deadline and with what project managers call deliverables. Even so it takes a great deal of maturity to recognize failings in yourself let alone admit to them.
Investors and publishers will be the first to point out failure to you because you will have agreed to a set of performance indicators. That's incredibly useful to you, stop what you're doing and listen to them very carefully.
So how did I utilize failure in the end?
- I learned about the sorts of people I need around me
- I learned about the cost of hubris and the 'cult of ego'
- I went on to be guided by some fantastic people
- I work on software of barely conceivable scale
- I became calmer and more rational
- I never accept what I'm told verbatim
Could I have done any of that without failing along the way?
It's important to recognize that failure and regret are two different things that normally come packaged together.
Do I have regrets? Sure I do.
But regrets are a stick that our mind would beat us with, disarm that and find the associated failing, if there isn't one then it's likely that what you're feeling is what someone else has told you to feel.
Probably by a type one or two fool.
Writing this I'm reminded of all I've achieved and I'm proud. I'm proud of all my individual failings because they happened while I chased my aspirations.
If I were to drop dead tomorrow I would do so with a smile on my face.
That's because the gross cost has actually been a net profit ...
... and that dear reader, is the price of failure.