When You Fail, You’ve Done Something Great

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Illustration Juan Osorno.

While most are forgettable, a very few conversations in your life become touchstones. Whether it’s because of an utterly unique perspective or a certain turn of phrase, you experience a paradigm shift in your thinking.


One such a-ha moment for me was an interview I did with Sebastian Thrun for my book Make Your Mark. If you’re not familiar with him, Thrun led the team that created Google Glass and the Google Self-Driving Car.

He’s also the co-founder of Udacity, a pioneer in the online learning space. In other words, dude knows how to innovate. We talked about failure, iteration, and the importance of enjoying the feeling of being small.

You’ve developed a number of revolutionary products. How do you focus your energies at the beginning of a project?

When thinking about products, I like to use a mountain-climbing analogy. The first step is to pick a peak. Don’t pick a peak because it’s easy. Pick a peak because you really want to go there; that way you’ll enjoy the process.

The second thing is to pick a team you trust and that’s willing to learn with you. Because the way mountain climbing really works is that you can’t climb the entire route perfectly. You have to know that you are going to make mistakes, that you’ll have to turn around, and that you’ll have to recover.

You also have to maintain your sense of purpose. For a long time, it may feel like you’re on the wrong path, but you must have the resilience to forge ahead. You just have to keep moving uphill.

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It sounds like it’s more about focusing on the process for you, as opposed to the outcome.

Absolutely. For me, the journey is much more delightful if you can derive pleasure from the process every day, rather than at the end of the year. If your goal is to IPO and get rich, then you’re going to be in for a very long, very sad ride. Because most people don’t IPO and don’t get rich.

Our most important asset is our time, so I think it’s best to manage your time well right now and be happy about it, rather than focus on some deferred goal, like buying a fancy car in the future. The data shows that people who are rich aren’t any happier, so you might as well derive your happiness from what you are doing today.

How does iteration figure into your process? Do you think it’s best to create a functional prototype as soon as possible?

To return to the mountain idea, if you think about it, there’s no other way to get up the mountain than taking a hundred thousand steps. You could have all the meetings and all the documentation and work for weeks on end to make the perfect plan. But in my opinion, all you’ve done at that point is lost time. You’ve done nothing. You’ve learned nothing.

There’s no other way to get up the mountain than taking a hundred thousand steps.

Sure, if this mountain has been climbed ten thousand times before, then you just get the book, and the maps, and you follow the same steps. But that’s not innovation. Innovation is about climbing a mountain that no one has climbed before. So there ought to be some unknowns along the way because no one has solved the problem yet.

And when you’re innovating, sheer thinking just won’t work. What gets you there is fast iteration, and fast failing. And when you fail, you’ve done something great: you’ve learned something. In hindsight, it might look a little embarrassing, and people will say, “You should’ve known that.” But the truth is you couldn’t have known because it’s unchartered territory. Almost every entrepreneur I know has failed massively many, many times along the way.

What’s the most common mistake that people make when they’re developing a product?

One mistake I see a lot is the eternal thinker, the perfectionist. This is the person that builds all the components without putting them together, because there’s perfection in component development. And they have this idea that if you only put things together right before launch, everything will go fine. Of course, that never happens.

The second mistake I see is more of a character issue, which is being discouraged by failure. Where you do something three or four times, spend half a year in development, and think, “Oh my god, I’m not there yet, let me change my career . . .” So that’s a lack of perseverance.

The last one I see is being driven by fear. When your competitor does something new, you become fearful and decide that you’re going to change course. But every single time you do this, you’re already behind your competitor and that’s just a bad idea. You have to have faith in yourself, and believe in your vision.

At some time, everybody is driven by fear. But we need to—as much as we can—take fear out of the game. One way to do this is to imagine that you are already successful. You’ve looked into the future, and you’ve succeeded. What would you enjoy doing today given that knowledge?

Clearly, certain personality types are more comfortable with iteration and failure than others. Do you think you can learn to be if it doesn’t come naturally?

It’s obvious to me that there’s a certain personality type that can deal with failure more than others. But I think this awareness can also be acquired, especially when you realize that the failures that come out of experimentation really don’t relate to you as a person. It’s just the course of innovation; failure is a systemic part of that process.

For instance, if you’re driving a car, and after three hundred miles the car runs out of gas, no one takes offense because the “failure” is inherent to the car, not to you. It’s not your failure to operate the car correctly. We all know that you have to refill the gas tank; that’s just the way it is. So if we think of failure in innovation in the same way—as having to refill the gas tank regularly—we can take it much less personally.

The failures that come out of experimentation really don’t relate to you as a person. It’s just the course of innovation.

That’s a great metaphor. So you think the idea of constant—and playful—experimentation is the best mindset for innovation?

It’s very uncommon for people to have the attitude of “Wow, I don’t know.” In childhood, researchers call this a “growth mindset”—this idea that you’re comfortable with the fact that you just don’t know something yet, or that you just can’t do something yet. But most people are raised with this feeling that they know everything.

But if you know everything, you can’t possibly innovate, right? It’s impossible, because there is nothing new to learn or discover. There’s this funny saying that I like: “After high school, kids know everything, after their bachelor’s degree, they know something, and after a PhD, they now know that they know nothing.”

I think that the ability to see how much more there is to know and be humble about it is actually a good thing. Returning to the mountain metaphor, every mountain climber I know of feels small in the mountains and enjoys the feeling of being small. No matter what you do, the mountain is always bigger than you are.

This interview is excerpted from Make Your Mark. The illustration is from Juan Osorno.

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