You Can’t Succeed Without Failure
We tend to believe that the best performers in any domain succeed more than the rest and fail far less or not at all.
The truth is that the best succeed the most . . . and fail the most.
In fact, failing a lot is inextricably linked to how the best succeed the most. It couldn’t be any other way.
How can this be?
To win a lot, you have to try a lot. Trying a lot results in two things: winning a lot and failing a lot. Both. Les deux. You can’t have one without the other. You can’t succeed without failing. And as long as you keep at it, you can’t fail without eventually succeeding.
The difference between winners and others is:
- Winners try more.
- In order to try more, winners see failing not as something to be feared but as part of the process of winning.
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Winners are more fruitful than others because they grow more fruit
I lived on a property that had a peach tree. Mid-summer, when it was time to pick the fruit, some of it was bug-eaten, some of it had fallen to the ground to become sludge balls if not thrown away, and some it was untarnished and delicious. A tree’s purpose in growing fruit is to have it go out into the world, take root somewhere, and grow into its own mature tree. Year after year, a tree produces hundreds of seeds. How many fall at the base of the tree, never to take root in soil that is already taken up by its parent? How many are eaten by animals or blown by strong winds but end up in infertile soil or eaten by humans and end up in trash bins then land fills?
But a tree doesn’t stop producing seeds each year just because many of them won’t work. It’s ok that not everything the tree produces works. It’s playing the numbers game, and it “knows” that if it just keeps producing, some of it will land . . . in good soil, that is. Not all of its efforts are fruitful, but the more fruit it produces, the more of it will be good. The more of it will be bad, too, but if that’s what it takes, then that’s ok.
We’re all familiar with Wayne Gretzky’s famous line, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” What’s his point? Don’t be afraid to take a shot. However, this truism has a second one hidden inside it, revealed by asking this question: What percentage of the shots you do take will you miss?
The answer? Well, let’s ask some of the greatest athletes in history.
What do the best performers do?
Reggie Jackson is in The National Baseball Hall of Fame. He is also the player who has struck out the most in baseball history.
That’s not unique to baseball.
If you compare the top 10 scorers in NBA history with the 10 players who missed the most shots in NBA history, you’ll see the exact same phenomenon: six players —six out of 10— are on both lists!
The following is an anecdote about Brandon Sanderson, the famous fantasy author. It’s about as unverified an anecdote as it gets, but I think the idea is right, and if you follow Sanderson’s work, you’ll probably find yourself nodding and smiling.
A friend in my writers group attended Brigham Young University at the same time as Sanderson. My friend’s writing partner was in the same creative writing class as Sanderson. One day, this writing partner pointed at Sanderson walking across the quad and told my friend, “You see that guy over there? He’s not any better than you or me, but he’ll be more successful because he outworks us.”
Failure comes with success (and vice versa)
Do you love your favorite Disney movie any less because Disney also produced “The Black Cauldron” and “The Aristocats?” (Sorry if one of those is your favorite; I had to pick something.) Do you love your favorite Internet content creators any less because they’ve put out some drawings, videos, or articles that weren’t as good as the ones that made them your favorite? (If you do, I have another article for you.)
Those who try the most fail the most. Those who try the most succeed the most. You can’t have one and not the other. You can’t succeed without failing. And as long as you keep at it, you can’t fail without eventually succeeding. The greatest athletes are also the ones who failed the most. Failure is an inevitable byproduct of success, but it’s also a path to success.
It goes both ways. If you put out a lot of low-quality work, you’ll get better by virtue of practice and in time the quality of your work will improve.
My favorite fiction writer, Ray Bradbury, said as much in 2001 at a lecture at University of California: “The best hygiene for beginning writers or intermediate writers is to write a . . . lot of short stories. If you could write one short story a week, it doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing. And at the end of a year you have 52 short stories, and I defy you to write 52 bad ones! Can’t be done! Can’t be done.”
Failure is unavoidable if you want to succeed, so just accept that
It’s September, the start of a new semester for college students. If you step into your new dorm or apartment and right away you can tell you’re not going to get along with your roommate, you can either be miserable or you can decide to make the most of it. It’s the same with failure.
If you want to achieve your dream, failure is going to come along for the ride. So you might as well decide that you’re going to be ok with that. And when you do, you may actually find in time that failure is not such a bad roommate after all. (How so? Because failure is essential to real learning. But that’s for the next article.)
If you do more, you’ll fail more but also succeed more. But watch out. If you are afraid to fail, you will keep yourself from doing. And if you don’t do, you won’t succeed. You have to be ok with failing or you can’t succeed. Failure is the price you pay for success. But it’s worth the price, especially since once you succeed, you almost always look back at the failure with fondness because of it helped you get to where you are now! (It’s like a rebate!)
So how do I do this?
Change what you look at
In the short term, focus mainly on quantity and not as much on quality. In the long-term, keep an eye on quality. Like climbing a mountain: focus on putting one step after another (quantity), every so often stopping to look at your map and the summit to make sure you’re going a wise way (quality).
As a designer, I’ve learned that to come up with a design that works (a logo, icon, interaction, layout), I often find the best solutions when I try as many ideas — and as many variants on those ideas — as I can. Many (many!) will be duds, but the commitment to just keep going, no matter what comes out, is what breaks my ceiling of creativity and yields the more interesting ideas.
I don’t look at the duds as failures, but as necessary steps to find a great idea. So while I doodle away, I don’t thinking about how good any individual sketch is. I focus purely on quantity, knowing that with each new drawing, I am one step closer to an even greater idea.
Oddly enough, ignoring quality in the moment often yields higher quality in the end.
I love this saying of Jesus: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” To me, this means your attention and efforts will be directed on those things you consider to be the measure of success. For things that are measurable, the metrics you consider to signify success are the ones you will try to increase.
So what are the metrics in your line of art. Think of the online platform that your line of art typical goes on: Instagram for visual artists, SoundCloud or Spotify for musicians, YouTube for video, Medium for writers, etc. What can be measured? Let’s take just three that each of these examples have: Number of subscribers, number of likes on a post, and number of things (images, songs, videos, articles) you post. You can’t control the former two, so focusing on them can become demoralizing and discouraging; you can control the latter one, so focusing on it becomes empowering and motivating.
Do, do, do!
Set a goal to ignore likes and subscribes and instead focus on posting as many things as you can. Finish one, post it, and begin the next one.
There are essentially two ways to keep yourself honest:
- Include in your goal to post a certain number in a set amount of time.
- Try a 30-day challenge: Do one thing every day for 30 days and post it online, regardless of how good you think it is. If you’re an artist, Inktober, March of Robots, and Mermay are popular themed 30-day challenges. (Inktober’s founder, Jake Parker, has a great video on the benefits of doing a 30-day challenge.)
If your art form requires more time to complete a thing, commit to finishing and releasing one thing each week or month.
You got this!
The best part about all this is that it’s simple to do. It may be daunting to think about relaxing your perfectionistic standards and just start putting your things out there the best you can make them, rather than the best that the best performers can make them (which you can’t do yet so you never put them out there).
But if you make this mental and emotional jump (right along with the best winners) and try more than you are now, and as a result fail more than you are now, then sooner than you think, you’ll start succeeding more than you are now.