In Silicon Valley, start-ups don’t launch as polished, finished businesses. Instead, they release their “Minimum Viable Product” (MVP)—the most basic version of their core idea with only one or two essential features.
The point is to immediately see how customers respond—and, if that response is poor, to be able to fail cheaply and quickly. The goal is to avoid making or investing in a product customers do not want. Gmail, which is now a nearly universal email client, was initially only used internally by Google employees. It wasn’t made publicly available until 2007 and didn’t even come out of beta until 2009. Instagram started out as the failed social networking app Burbn before the founders realized their customers were using their photo feature more than anything else. They then pivoted the product to the app we now know and sold it to Facebook roughly a year later for $1 billion.
As engineers now like to quip: Failure is a feature.
It’s not a joke: Failure really can be an asset if we are trying to improve, learn, or do something new. It’s the feature that precedes nearly all successes. There’s nothing shameful about being wrong, about changing course. Each time it happens we have new options. Problems become opportunities.
Of course, deep down we know this is true. We know that our past failures have contributed immensely to our personal growth. Yet we still fear failure greatly. We hate it because it is painful in the short term. Our mind tries everything in its power to prevent us from doing something that makes us feel bad—even if it will benefit us in the long term.
We bring this attitude over to our business and creative projects. The model where companies essentially guess what customers want from research—and then produce those products in a lab, isolated and insulated from feedback—reflects a fear of failure and is deeply fragile in relation to it. If the highly-produced product flops on launch day, all that effort was wasted. If it succeeds, no one really knows why or what was responsible for that success.
The MVP model, on the other hand, embraces failure and feedback. It gets stronger by failure, dropping the features that don’t work, that customers don’t find interesting, and then focusing the developers’ limited resources on improving the features that do.
As Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired, has said: "We can learn nearly as much from an experiment that does not work as from one that does. Failure is not something to be avoided but rather something to be cultivated. That's a lesson from science that benefits not only laboratory research, but design, sport, engineering, art, entrepreneurship, and even daily life itself. All creative avenues yield the maximum when failures are embraced."
In a world where we increasingly work for ourselves, and are responsible for ourselves, it makes sense to view ourselves like a start-up—a start-up of one. And that means changing our relationship with failure. It means iterating, failing, and improving. Our capacity to try, try, try is inextricably linked with our ability and tolerance to fail, fail, fail.
We will fail in life—possibly many times. And that’s okay. It can be a good thing, even. Action and failure are two sides of the same coin. One doesn’t come without the other. What breaks this critical connection down is when people stop acting—because they’ve taken failure the wrong way.
When we stop acting, ironically, we feel a sense of failure more intensely. Our anxiety increases and we begin to lose confidence in ourselves. It is only in exposing ourselves to failure that our sense of failure and anxiety can dissipate.
This is why stories of great success are often preceded by epic failure—because the people in them went back to the drawing board. They weren’t ashamed to fail, but spurred on, piqued by it. As the great Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.”
One man who lived the spirit of that quote was Abraham Lincoln. He ran into failure over and over again, throughout his life, but always learned from it, favoring the old aphorism, “This too shall pass.” He was born into poverty, failed in business, lost the woman he loved as a young man, and was beaten in eight elections before being elected President in 1860. For Lincoln these failures were painful, especially because they were coupled with his lifelong battle with depression. But he always persevered, following in the footsteps of another American statesman, Ben Franklin, who wrote, “Those things that hurt, instruct.”
And even though we know that there are great lessons from failure—lessons we’ve seen in history and with our own two eyes—we repeatedly shrink from it. We do everything we can to avoid it, thinking it’s embarrassing or shameful. We fail, kicking and screaming.
Why would I want to fail? It hurts.
I would never claim it doesn’t. But we can also acknowledge that anticipated, temporary failure certainly hurts less than catastrophic, permanent failure.
The one way to guarantee we don’t benefit from failure—to ensure it is a bad thing—is to not learn from it and to be afraid of it. To continue to try the same thing over and over. People fail in small ways all the time. To gain the benefits, we have to listen to it and recognize the problems it exposes.
Instead of being paralyzed by our fear of failure, we can turn to the Stoic greats of the past and see that we have a choice. We can choose if we will allow failure to harm us. To understand it isn’t a negative reflection of who we are as people. It’s simply a signal, feedback showing us the way. Understanding this, we can now act boldly and collect data for ourselves, because in learning from our failures we are able to turn what others would consider disappointments into opportunities to act. Failure shows us the way—by showing us what isn’t the way.
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of The Obstacle Is The Way. Based on timeless philosophical principles and the stories from history's greats, The Obstacle Is The Way reveals a formula for turning difficulty and tribulation into advantage. Ryan is also the author of Trust Me, I’m Lying and Growth Hacker Marketing and currently an editor at large for the New York Observer.