Plan Your Failures

There’s this sort of modern business parable I like. Goes like this:

A big-shot CEO is being interviewed for some magazine. Interviewer asks him why he’s so successful. He says “Two words: Good decisions.” Interviewer asks him how he learned to make good decisions. He says “One word: Experience.” Interviewer asks how he got experience, and he says “Two words: Bad decisions.”

I love that. I think one of the worst things that can happen to you is easy, overnight success. If you succeed on your first attempt at something, you almost certainly don’t have a robust framework for your success. You learned exactly one way to succeed and zero ways to fail, and you can’t even be sure if your success was entirely due to your own accomplishments or if the stars simply aligned. Compare that to the way Edison made the light bulb after countless failed attempts – it took him a thousand tries, but he never claimed they were failures, he said he discovered a thousand ways not to make a light bulb. That a light bulb was an invention that took a thousand steps.

The benefits of so many failures is that you carve a path through ignorance and the unknown and gather a tremendous knowledge of the world around your actions. Thousands upon thousands of bits of information about what works and what doesn’t and to what degree, allowing you to mix and recombine these pieces into exponentially greater and greater ideas and plans.

You should go into any endeavor with a plan to fail.

That means while of course you’re trying to succeed, failure shouldn’t shock you or catch you unprepared. You should know that failure is a very real possibility, you should expect it, and you should have a clear framework for evaluating that failure and squeezing all the information out of it that you possibly can. Don’t just shrug your shoulders and try the same thing again – gather your data, evaluate your methods, and adjust your course.

Try to fail at least a few times per week. They don’t have to be big failures, but you should aim for at least a handful every week. Try a variation on your sales pitch. Test out a new formula for the beauty products you sell. Use different software to make your next design. Tweak the dials. Someone who never has even a tiny failure isn’t trying anything and isn’t taking any risks – and thus will never improve.

You can’t coast. No success is permanent. The world moves around you. It’s fine to define your own parameters of success (and in fact, you should!), and so it’s perfectly fine to be content with a certain level of success and decide that the marginal benefit of an additional dollar doesn’t outweigh the marginal cost of an extra unit of effort put towards making it. You can retire whenever you decide to. But until then – as long as you want to keep it up – don’t let success stand in the way of your failures. Because you need them.

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