Learning to see failure as progress

To most, the idea of starting something just to have it fail seems preposterous. Who would want to invest valuable time and energy into a project only to encounter unrelenting challenges and set-backs? Welcome to the world of entrepreneurship.

Earlier this week in Entrepreneur Magazine, NerdWallet COO Jake Gibson wrote a piece in response to a NY Times article that looked at how Silicon Valley start-ups use failure to advance rather than kill their success. In his piece, Gibson argues that as entrepreneurs we should celebrate our failures rather than be shamed by them since they are the only way to truly know whether strategies are working and if not, where improvements should be made. He writes:

The impulse in much of corporate America is to minimize mistakes or sweep them under the rug. But you can’t learn a lesson unless you examine what went wrong — you need to sit with the failure and understand what are the next steps. The learning has to be actionable: it must change your behavior or your strategy.

What Gibson gets at here is something most of us have likely encountered before, particularly in stringent institutional settings where mistakes tend to not only be discouraged but are considered fatal to future success. Instead, he suggests that missteps are among the most valuable assets to have because they can be used to guide future steps and avoid similar mistakes. Gibson further asserts that not only acknowledging but publicly celebrating one’s failure is actually a gesture of transparency and self-awareness that will demonstrate your integrity, open-mindedness and most importantly adaptability to shifting circumstances.

Use failure to self-reflect rather than self-defeat

It would be disingenuous to suggest that failure is something that eventually starts to roll off your back after time. Reality check: failure is a difficult and disappointing process that never gets easier, no matter how many times you’ve experienced it. However, there does come a time when one must leverage those failures as opportunities to evaluate existing strategies and what needs to be tweaked or done away with altogether. As entrepreneurs it’s critical that people come to see failure as an ally rather than an opponent and consider it’s potential to open doors that would help advance their business efforts.

Leverage failures as bridge-building opportunities

Gibson goes on to compare entrepreneurial process to the scientific method, wherein failure is seen as a pathway to greater knowledge. Take for example that your original idea for a mobile application didn’t go as planned and eventually fell through. Consider reaching out to a mentor, colleague or expert in that field and ask if they’d be willing to review your plan and offer suggestions on how to better it. Success doesn’t happen in a vacuum and receiving quality — and honest — feedback from more experienced professionals is an effective way to gain alternate perspectives on your product or service. You may be surprised at the advice you get and should be prepared to receive it in the rawest form possible. No matter how much the honesty may sting it will likely be invaluable to helping you overcome critical business hurdles, or at the very least inspire you to explore other angles.

Chart your misses and use them to power your business

Every serious business should have a mapped out strategy for evaluating each action step and their expected outcomes. Since very few things turn out exactly how we expected, having this mechanism in place will enable your team to immediately identify what went wrong and why. Having the ability to effectively monitor your strategy and problem-solve in real-time will keep failure from setting up permanent residence in your company.

In the end there’s little virtue in being too smart to accept your own mistakes. Embracing failure as an inevitable lay-over will make your journey to the top far more scenic.