To antithesize yesterday’s post a bit, you must not be too quick to surrender failed projects. Give obstacles their due perspective and time before you put your hands up and walk away. If you’re stringing a project along because you’re no longer interested in it, then mark it a failure and leave it be. But if you’re stringing a project along because of obstacles you cannot overcome, take an extra minute to consider the whole thing. What will it take to overcome this problem? Can you do it alone? Do you care enough to inspire the resources of others to help you? If you do not care enough to try and inspire the world with your work, walk away. If you do care, don’t give up and figure it out.
Quitters give up because they don’t care enough. Do not be a quitter. Pick projects you believe in and believe in them until the deeds are done. The second you stop believing, you lose.
I’m not very good at this. I start so many projects that never see the light of day. I’m great at starting things; not so great at finishing them. What’s worse? I can never seem to let failed projects die. They pile on my desk and continue to distract me from the latest and greatest. I tell myself, “Maybe someday I’ll crack the code to this one and solve it.” But that hasn’t happened yet. Not for a single project. Only the current, active and relevant projects of mine tend to succeed.
I think you can ‘finish’ incomplete projects. You can repackage them as failures and label the package with lessons learned. That way, reminders of that project call back to useful takeaways instead of a meandering nostalgia. You can consolidate the evidence and pack it into a box. You may even need to set the box free. I’ve burned notes, posted rough drafts to the internet, buried files on a hard drive and given mementos away. I routinely publish and share my failures with the world to save people from making the same mistakes. Other times, I just hit the delete key.
More often than not, it’s better to let go. Think about it like you’re shedding baggage – not taking your pet out back and shooting it. Losing weight is a good thing. Losing distractions, even by your own creation, can be great for you, too.
Contemporary academia leaves little to no room for error. With grades and tuition on the line, failure is not acceptable. We were all raised to think this way, perhaps the single greatest fault of contemporary education. Individuals deeply ingrained in the academic world have even less tolerance for failure. You cannot genuinely innovate when you need to ask permission for everything or need to meet a rubric. We need to have freedom – permission to make mistakes – before we can truly change the world.
Seth Godin calls this ‘guts’ – a trait far more admirable than perfectionism or a no-tolerance policy. We can all respect high batting averages; we cannot always respect the methods behind high batting averages. At the end of the day, we pay more attention to home runs than high batting averages anyway. To hit home runs? Swing with everything you’ve got – even at the risk of missing the ball. You may lose the game if you miss, but you cannot win unless you swing.
Man up and admit you messed up before things get worse. You definitely walk a fine line between giving up too early and giving up too late. Either way, it’s imperative that you anticipate failure. Bring it up as soon as things start turning sour. Addressing your anticipation with others will hurt you less than failure itself; if anything, it may help you minimize casualties or possibly keep the train on the tracks. Identifying and debriefing failure is the key to learning from mistakes and sharing your education with others.
Let the words flow. If you have something you’d like to say, say it. Do not be afraid what other people will think. Permit yourself to say something wrong. Stay open to criticism and feedback – it’s the only way to refine your voice and position against millions of other voices.
When I started this blog, posts took around an hour per day. I was afraid what people might think, so I spent a lot of time on them. A year later, I care less about the craft of my posts and more about the ideas I want to communicate. Now, with a few exceptions, posts take me no more than 20 minutes per day. As soon as I surrendered my preoccupation with perfect writing, the thoughts flowed more freely, and it demanded far less of my time.
Censoring yourself not only compromises your character, it can compromise your time. Do not fail yourself or your ideas with perfectionism. Spit it out, fool.
The strongest and wisest people I know are not afraid to call themselves out on mistakes. Not only is it honest to admit when you’re wrong, it’s the key to learning from your mistakes. Until you acknowledge that there’s a lesson to be learned, you can’t learn it. It’s human nature to defend yourself when accused or disarmed – your first reaction is to put up a fight. But don’t. If you’re in the wrong, you’re wrong. You’ll be the better man or woman to admit it. And while your failure may be noted, your honesty and lessons learned will go a very long way. Don’t let failure go to waste.
…Try again differently. Don’t give up. Don’t dismiss it as a failure and leave it behind in the dust. Not yet. Don’t let all that hard work go to waste. Learn from your mistakes, figure out why it didn’t work the first time, and put lessons learned into practice. Try again, but differently this time. If you lose a second time, sit back and analyze the situation again. Debrief. You cannot wave it off in ignorance and shame. You must study your defeat. Only when you can draft an educated and supported thesis on your shortcomings should you be allowed to dismiss your attempts as failures and move on.
Failure. The most successful people do not fear failure. They fail often and learn quickly. Failure informs uncontested success. If you want to succeed, embrace failure as a necessary ingredient to achieving greater goals.
Let’s face it: you are not proficient or informed about hundreds of thousands of things. No single person knows everything or masters every skill on the planet. There are countless battles you cannot win. That’s difficult for many people to hear, especially me; I am as competitive as they come. But you must face the facts and learn to let go. I am not very athletic or musical; I tip my hat to and tap out of matches with people who are. Choose your battles wisely. Know what battles are worth fighting. Know what battles you stand a chance to win. Invest yourself completely. Focus on meaningful, personal battles. Discard and ignore the rest. It’s far less stressful and humiliating to accept failure before you actually fail.
The concept of failure as an educational tool is not new, nor is it particularly difficult to rationalize. Make a mistake and you are less likely to make the same mistake again. Touch a hot stove? Fail. Lesson learned. The human value of failure is obvious, right?
Easier said than done. Nobody likes to fail. More often than not, we shy away from the obstacles that may otherwise drive us to fail. Generally, we avoid risk. Consequently, we learn very little.
Former IBM president Thomas J. Watson once said, “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” In pursuit of a fulfilled life, we need to take more chances – and therefore prepare ourselves for a higher volume of failure. For what reason? Because every time we fail, we learn. The more we learn, the more equipped we are to iterate on our failure. With enough iterations, we will unlock our potential and succeed.
Abstinence from action is abstinence of growth.
Do not sit still. Take chances. Fail. And love it.