You are not your failures

I remember a day last year when one of the guys walked into Huckletree without greeting me in his normal chirpy way. And I remember the same thing happening the next day and the next and the day after that, to the point where reverting to that old chirpy greeting would no longer have seemed ‘normal’ at all.

It’s a difficult thing, watching someone you care about fall into crisis mode in silence. I’ve seen many of my friends in the same state. I’ve been in that state. And of course — having been there myself — I would try to get them to talk about it, but there are times when we just don’t want to talk to anyone.

There are moments when it seems too scary to admit that our grand plan might not be going as we hoped. It’s as though saying it out loud might just be enough to make it real and seal our fate.

Through some cruel twist of nature, those moments are the ones when we most need the support.

Failure feels uncontrollable

In an attempt to satisfy that need, failure is discussed ad nauseam in the startup world. Often, however, the raw emotion of it is kept hidden by a prescriptive framework like the post-mortem. To fail and publicly dissect one’s failure is almost a rite of passage amongst entrepreneurs.

For some it’s a way of taking control of the story after it’s all fallen apart. For others it’s one last little ego stroke to ease the pain while they’re questioning their value.

Compared to all these ambitious projects that wind up in the metaphorical morgue, I can’t help but think that my own failures aren’t even good enough to merit a eulogy. It’s hardly surprising to fail occasionally when trying to build an entire empire from a dream, or in flying an expedition to Mars.

In my life though, failure looks more mundane — like that time I misinterpreted a client brief and worked my ass off to unwittingly drive the project in the wrong direction, setting the whole team back a week. Hardly seems worth talking about, yet it affected me and as it turns out, resonates with a lot of people.

So while it’s great that so many brave people are talking about their grand failures, the startup post-mortem doesn’t change the way our understanding of failure impacts us on a daily basis.

The fact remains that we can never be sure of the outcome when exploring unchartered territory, no matter how significant its potential.

What we can be sure of, however, is that there is some risk of failure. That’s not a bad thing though, unless it leaves you in fear.

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original” — Ken Robinson

Failure scares us

When we allow ourselves to be driven by the fear of failure, we build our strategy around avoiding it. We become defensive.

That’s where creative block comes from. In re-writing this article, for example, I became so focused on all the things I’d done wrong in the first iteration that I was all out of headspace to think of a new angle. The irony was not lost on me. James Routledge recently published a beautiful article on the same subject.

And yet — despite being aware of the limitations it imposes on our ability to invent, create and ideate — the fear of failure is remarkably hard to let go. What, exactly, are we so worried about?

It turns out that we’re not scared of failing per se, we’re scared of being seen as a failure.

Failure gets personal

All of this links back to ego. We get attached to it, to our self-image or the image of ourselves that we’ve tried to plant in the minds of others.

You might have painted a portrait of a person who’s reliable and creative and great at design or sales or Rails. Perhaps you’ve bonded your sense of self so strongly to your role as CEO that you can no longer imagine your world without the title. Or maybe you’re just so absorbed in a project that it’s become your baby.

As we hold that perfect picture more and more tightly, failure seems to pose a threat to our identity. We become protective of it, possessive. And if it does all go wrong despite our best efforts, we’ll fight to keep our deflated ego afloat by putting a positive spin on the story, rather than telling the world honestly how much it hurts to lose something we’d made so important.

But you are not your failures. Nor, I might add, your successes. All you’re doing is testing a hypothesis.

You will screw up sometimes, you might even fail, but that doesn’t make you a failure.