It was 1998. I walked into my first meeting with my now friend Bill Gross, the founder and CEO of Idealab. I was shown to a conference room that had quotes on the wall, and one of them, from Thomas Edison, immediately jumped out at me: “I have not failed 1,000 times, I have successfully found 1,000 ways that will not make a light bulb.” This quote, or at least some version of it, is the mantra of every successful entrepreneur.
We learn about failure early in life. Kids race each other on the playground and are tested in school and given grades each year, quickly learning what it means to win or lose, pass or fail. Not winning tends to have a stigma around it, and can ultimately lead to labels like “failure” or “loser.” Too many people allow external views to define their self-worth and thus are afraid of ridicule stemming from these unfair labels, which we even give to our own friends and family. Through societal behavior, we teach people to not be risk takers.
I’m not here to say there is no such thing as failure. Failure is very real, but it is not an end destination — it’s another event in the course of life. Experiencing one failure or 100 does not make you a failure. Failure is an external event that happens. It is not a personality characteristic. One who fails a lot, we could say, takes a lot of risks. It’s important to separate the events of failure from the personal characteristic of being a failure.
Failure is an opportunity to learn. When we confuse our personal sense of self-value with success, we are restricting our ability to learn because our ego becomes another factor in this equation. Our ego tells us we succeeded because we’re so smart and so great, or that we failed because we are a loser and can’t win at anything.
This clouds the analytical process of simply looking at the results of a situation and asking ourselves, “What happened?” There are key questions to ask in order to learn and grow from past mistakes.
- “How did I approach this?”
- “How prepared was I?”
- “What was within my control to change and what was not?”
- “Of the things within my control, what other actions could I have taken that might have produced a different outcome?”
Likewise, success can equally blind us from learning. Just like failure, success is an external event and does not necessarily define you as a winner. Many entrepreneurs who have experienced success make the mistake of believing they did it all on their own, forgetting the team and support that helped them achieve their goals. Of course, they made good decisions at the right time, worked hard and achieved success, but in almost all cases, there were other team members who assisted in the win.
Because failure is so bitingly painful, it tends to get more personal introspection than success. However, it’s the entrepreneurs’ optimistic “never say die” attitude that can also get in the way of self-evaluation and looking at the contributing causes of failure. Learn to separate the event of failure from your personal identity and invest in objectively reviewing the situation and trying a different approach next time. This relates to a core message I share with every entrepreneur — be ruthlessly honest with yourself and others. Denial is your worst enemy.
Strive to find flaws in your ideas or processes and eliminate them. You are only doomed to repeatedly fail if you choose not to learn from your past mistakes.