Oct 2012

(Based on a talk at a University Club)


“He who has conquered doubt and fear has conquered failure. Doubt has killed more splendid projects, shattered more ambitious schemes, strangled more effective geniuses, neutralized more superb efforts, blasted more fine intellects, thwarted more splendid ambitions than any other enemy of the human race.

– James Allen


“Supposing you have tried and failed again and again. You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call “failure” is not the falling down, but the staying down.”

– Mary Pickford


Often you’ll notice that people who talk openly about failure are themselves intolerant to failure. Like its common to see executives talk about their own failures but when one of their employees fails, they get fired.

In psychology, thinking about something bad happening and not thinking about something bad happening, often triggers the same response. Whatever causes that response I think is the same place that peoples reaction to failure comes from.

Failure is largely something that shouldn’t matter. It’s not that failing in itself is a good thing. Actually it’s a very bad thing. Failure when it can be avoided, should be. But what is good is to remove the stigma from failure being a bad thing.

So I think just celebrating failure while good, is a slightly larger problem. In startups it doesn’t matter how many times you are wrong, you only have to be right once.

Scientists, artists and mathematicians implicitly understand the notion of repeated failure. Trial and error is how everything gets created. Nobody ever picked up a paint brush and could draw immediately. Every time you reach for an eraser or every time you delete a line of code is a form of failure.

The reason failure is bad is because after somebody fails they usually give up and quit. That’s why it’s bad. And because everybody else judges someone who has failed badly.

That right there is the problem. It’s the stigma that is bad and is a type of prejudice. The bias is built into the mechanism.

It’s a type of signaling. Like how if a person doesn’t have a degree, it doesn’t mean they are less talented or capable, but a lot of people will treat them like they are. But in fact it takes many many failures to become good at anything.


The reason failure is stigmatised is because of the accompanying emotions. Shame, embarrasment, fear. These aren’t really real. Now when you recognise they aren’t real it is like having a moment of clarity.

It’s a lot like that quote from The Usual Suspects, “the greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” This is like the opposite of that quote. By convincing people of something that does not exist, it causes people to be scared of something that isn’t there. The fear of failing is only the fear itself. People are not scared of failing, they are scared of what accompanies failure.

What that means is if you look at what causes someone to feel those emotions, it is usually other people. If you fall over by yourself at home you barely notice but falling over in front of a crowd in a public place causes embarasment.

It’s what happens when you have the eyes of others centred on you. So step one in overcoming failure is probably to stop caring what other people think. In the scheme of things, nobody else matters.

When you isolate what failure is, failure is just not succeeding. Not returning the desired outcome. Which means the emphasis isn’t on failure necessarily it is on success. So reframing, why are people so focused on success? I don’t know but I think the answer has something to do with how people assign value to things.

Shakespeare once said, “nothing is more common than the wish to be remarkable.” I think he’s right and wherever that wish comes from is the same part of human nature that causes people to assert themselves above others and to look down on failure.


It’s interesting if you look at it from the other direction. When a person isn’t afraid of failure it means they are fearless. That is a very good thing and the desired reaction. You want people who are fearless. But what does being fearless mean?

A lot of people say they think I’m fearless but I don’t really know what they’re talking about. I think what they are trying to say is I always seem to be ready to try something. If you’re always prepared to try something, it’s an approximation to being unwavering and that inflexibility can sometimes seem like fortitude.

How do you become fearless? I think the answer is to just not care. Like to barely notice. The most successful people I know, their success barely registers with them. Like they know viscerally how much they have succeeded but it doesn’t affect them.

I think that’s probably the best way to be. When you don’t care about your successes you tend not to care about your failures either. That’s not to say you shouldn’t take pride in your work but it means the only person whose judgement matters is your own.