What is it about the market that ‘works’? I mean, how do companies keep creating and innovating so consistently over time? How is it that you can invest money in your 20s and receive six times your investment when you retire in your 60s? How is it that people create value?
I’ll submit that the consistency and value of the market (of companies) and of people is directly tied to failure. You see, progress is made through trial and error. If there were no mistakes there would be nothing to learn from. The simple fact that companies and products sometimes fail is what drives innovation forward. It’s why entrepreneurs, regardless of their level of intelligence, are able to create immense value, they’re iterating on failure after failure. It’s why free markets have prevailed for centuries, failure is built into the mechanism. It’s why, on a personal level, the way that failure occurs to you will play an oversized role in your personal success. Winston Churchill famously said, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” But it’s even better than that, failures are the milestones on the way to success, they’re what makes success possible. So next time you fail, don’t dress it up, don’t make up reasons or excuses, squeeze every bit of valuable information you can out of it. It may have actually been a huge success.
So here’s a question, why do we love motion so much? If motion isn’t what moves us forward, if it’s more like wasted time than productive time, how come we spend so much time on it? James Clear (author of Atomic Habits) has one more helpful suggestion here, he says it’s because motion lets us feel productive without risking anything. Action necessarily involves some risk of failure, which is obviously not ideal. Failure is the worst, or at least it seems like the worst. It’s super uncomfortable, awkward, humiliating, and generally terrifying as a prospect. It makes sense that we want to avoid it.
Malcolm Gladwell has some compelling thoughts on this topic. Based on the multitude of interviews he’s conducted with entrepreneurs and successful people, he discovered that a disproportionate ratio of them are dyslexic. Research backs this up, for some reason around 35% of company founders suffer from dyslexia compared to about 15% of the broader American population. Dyslexia is thought to be a great hindrance, what about a learning disability could push people to succeed? Gladwell suggests that the main reason for this implausible statistic is the fact that those who suffer from dyslexia have become so acquainted with failure. Take school for example, grade school provides an endless arena for dyslexic children to fail from early childhood. Reading, writing, test-taking, all of it is perfectly primed to flunk a dyslexic child. So while the rest of us were earning kudos and awards for our normal learning styles, those with dyslexia were learning a much more valuable lesson, how to fail again and again and again. People with dyslexia often demonstrate proficiency with verbal communication (because writing is very difficult), comfort with delegation (because they’ve had to rely on people for help), and other very helpful characteristics of an entrepreneur in a free market society. These characteristics are grown out of a response to failure and weakness. They’re more than a natural or genetic lean, these are learned out of necessity.
Gladwell is not the only one to theorize on the value of failure, Winston Churchill stated that “success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” C.S. Lewis said “failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.” Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps most famously, said “far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
Failure seems scary, but maybe it’s time for a new perspective. Failure is actually your friend. Failure means that you’re taking risks, that you’re in the game, that you’re learning. So let’s embrace failure, let’s get comfortable with it. No more playing it safe with endless motion, we’re here to act. Be a failure, and find success.