I want to teach you how to fail.
And I want to suggest that you welcome – rather than fear – failure. In fact, even more than that, I want you to learn to harness failure and make it work for you. I’m going to explain the Three Rules of Intelligent Failure.
Notice I didn’t say you should BE a failure. That’s because there’s no such thing – no matter what the media would have you believe – as a failure. There is never a point in your life at which a celestial being drops from above and presents you with your Certificate of Failure, a Failure badge, your ceremonial tramp’s plastic bag and straggly beard.
But people – particularly if they’ve had a few failures sometimes start thinking they ARE failures. If this is you – stop it. You are no more a failure than you are a cat, a chair or a postbox. You have huge potential – whether you’re in with the in-crowd or on the fringes. Your past results – or lack of them – don’t indicate your potential to succeed in life. They don’t matter.
You just need to fail intelligently.
There is a big difference between intelligent failure and just plain failing. For example, if you get sacked because you couldn’t be bothered to do any work, that’s not intelligent failure. That’s stupid.
Here’s how to fail intelligently…
Rule 1 – have a goal
Rule 1 of intelligent failure – have a goal. Yup, you’ve heard it before. But without a goal you don’t know if you’ve succeeded. Of course, not having a goal makes things easier. No need to face up to failure, no embarrassing moments, no need for hard work. Instead, just that nasty, nagging feeling of drifting and not really achieving much. Nice scenery…
Setting goals is hard. It’s difficult for most people to choose what they want in the first place, let alone start out to achieve it. But without a goal you’ll do something worse than fail – you’ll never even try. Life has a knack of keeping you very occupied and very busy – ‘occupied’ and ‘busy’ are not goals, they’re diversions.
So sit down, think what you want your obituary to say about your life and get on with it. Have a goal.
Rule 2 – if it doesn’t work, change something
Rule 2 of intelligent failure – if it doesn’t work, change something. Oh it’s sooo easy to keep doing the same thing. That’s because, even though it gets you nowhere, it’s comfortable. You know how to do it, you can probably do it quickly and you get a sense of satisfaction from actually, well, Doing. Even if you’re failing.
“Doing” is not determination
You might even dress up Doing as ‘determination’. You have grit and can stick at it – yeah, look at you. But determinedly doing something that keeps failing is stupid. And banging your head against a brick wall hurts and won’t move the wall. So don’t keep doing exactly the same thing if it keeps failing. Change things. Change a little at a time and find out what works – what gets you a better result. And about that wall? Try dynamite, not your head.
Rule 3 – keep going
Rule 3 of intelligent failure – keep going. Keep going when everything is against you, when your friends are laughing, when people (even including your mother) are telling you to do something else. If you’ve started a business, ignore those kind friends who waft the lovely smell of regular salaried income, paid holidays and a company car at you. Stick. At. It.
Dealing with the emotional mugging
Now, all that sounds like Rule 3 is a complete contradiction of Rule 2. But it’s not. And that’s why success is so bloody hard. Because you have to constantly endure the emotional mugging of failing, changing something, believing it’ll succeed and then watching it fall out of the sky like a brick. Again. And then picking up the brick and wondering how the hell you’re going to get it to stay up there.
It’s not like the movies. You KNOW the hero will win in the end. In life, you don’t. You simply have to keep at it and believe.
Sir James Dyson sums it up a lot better than I can:
“A lot of people give up when the world seems to be against them, but that’s the point when you should push a little harder. I use the analogy of running a race. It seems as though you can’t carry on, but if you just get through the pain barrier, you’ll see the end and be okay. Often, just around the corner is where the solution will happen.”
Ignore those false friends ‘passion’ and ‘wanting’. “I’ve got so much passion – I want to succeed so much!” Wanting gets you precisely nowhere – no matter how much you want. It’s action you need – and a lot of it. Success has a lot of failures in its way – you need to get over all of them. It doesn’t matter whether you leap or crawl or get helped over – it’s getting over each one that matters.
Thomas Edison – the man who invented the lightbulb after just 3,000 failures – knew a bit about what happens if you just want something but aren’t prepared to take any action and then keep going:
“Failure is really a matter of conceit. People don’t work hard because, in their conceit, they imagine they’ll succeed without ever making an effort. Most people believe that they’ll wake up some day and find themselves rich. Actually, they’ve got it half right, because eventually they do wake up.”
And that’s all there is to it. Three basic rules. It’s simple, isn’t it? But just because something is simple, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. I’m not saying that intelligent failure is easy – not for one minute. It’s tough.
Worthwhile things tend to be new, unexplored, untried – at least by you if not by others. That means you’re learning as you’re going. That means success often won’t be instant. You will probably fail – a lot. And it’s OK – as long as you fail intelligently you’re moving forward and learning.
So, the three rules for one last time:
1. Have a goal. Without it you’re drifting.
2. If something doesn’t work after you’ve given it your best shot – change it.
3. Keep going. Keep going when people laugh, tell you you’re wrong – just keep going.
You may not be academic – doesn’t matter. You may have a dead end job – doesn’t matter. You may be the shy one in the corner who people barely notice – doesn’t matter. You still have huge potential to succeed. And now you know how to fail intelligently, you know how to succeed too.
So what are you waiting for? Get out there and start failing. But do it intelligently.
I`ve just read this and am so grateful to you for writing it, Mark. One of the things about really excellent writing is that the reader feels it is speaking directly to them. And that`s how I felt; it could have been said just to me, and I needed to hear it.
Intelligent failure seems to me like a good philosophy for life as a whole, not only creative or career aspirations.
This is such an insightful and perceptive piece and I`m sure it will resonate with everyone who reads it.
Glad to be following your blog!
Just come back from an Amway seminar Mark?
Seriously, I have been that route, and apart from the pots, pans and perfumes, I listened to many very successful people – Sir Ranulph Fiennes being just one – and what you have written are key elements to achievement. That we often under-achieve is mostly down to fear of leaving the comfort zone.
F.E.A.R. False Expectations Appearing Real.
Lot of truth in that.
Have a goal. Well that’s me buggered on point 1.
This site certainly has all of the info I wanted about
this subject and didn’t know who to ask.