Failure is huge right now. It’s being studied. It’s being written about. It’s being blogged about. “Fail early and often,” we’re told.
“Surrender to the pain of failure.” “Failure is fundamental.” The latest key to success is to fail but to fail in the right way.But is there a right way to fail? Is there a right way to submit work you know is half-baked like I did during my first few months at my previous Job(Let’s call it Company X )?
Is there a right way to stumble through a presentation to the sales staff, as I did during
my first few months at Company X? Is there a right way to have a story killed? Is there a right way to do shit work? I don’t think actual failure is what’s being discussed. “Failure” is just the
word that makes the books and articles seem more intriguing than they actually
are. Actual failure is awful and expensive. It’s devastating.
Failure teaches you nothing. You should not consider “failure” a positive outcome. Not early.
Not often. Not ever, if you can help it. Really, what’s being discussed is: mistakes. All of the studies that the books and blog posts cite basically boil down to two messages.
1. Humans hate to make mistakes.
2. A key determinant of success is both accepting that you will make mistakes and paying attention to the mistakes that you make.
One of the most cited experts on this topic is Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, who pioneered the idea of “mind-sets.” People with “fixed mind-sets,” she says, believe their abilities are unchangeable—a belief that causes them to shy away from situations in which they might fail. By contrast, people with “growth mind-sets” embrace challenges because they believe they can become smarter and more capable even if they don’t succeed. They’re willing to get things wrong but more important, they’re ready to listen to the feedback.
Screwing up is not a defining thing. This is such a useful attitude to have. I’ve only just recently adopted this mentality. It’s made my work better. It’s made the process more efficient. And I have a lot more time to spend with my family.
What people with a growth mind-set know is that mistakes are useful when
you’re willing to have a conversation about them, when you’re willing to be
But actual failure? Humiliating, devastating failure?
Aside from teaching us that certain decisions are bad decisions and that we
should not make them twice, failure totally blows. But mistakes are amazing.
The main failure of my first couple of years in New York was the shame I
felt at making mistakes. If I have a regret, this is it. I was too caught up in the
fear of making mistakes. I sometimes acted timidly. In the short term, I probably
did “better” work, but in the long term I did worse work because I didn’t allow
myself to get my mistakes over with early. I would stay at work until midnight
working on a headline. I would refine a single joke over two or three days.
There is nothing wrong with focusing on the details. But focusing on the
details at the expense of your personal life is not a good idea.
Now that I’m a manager, if I see someone hanging on to something for
what I think is too long, I will tell them to give it to me. As is. Just turn it over.
Doing work too fast is a bad idea. But doing work too slow is a terrible idea.
The last thing a boss wants is to be left without any options if the work isn’t
good enough. Being fastidious is possibly the worst thing a young worker can
do. The work is probably not going to get to where it needs to be no matter how
long you hang on to it. So turn it in early and then make corrections. You’re
supposed to do bad work.
Everyone wants you to do bad work.
Your boss wants you to get it out of your system and learn what not to do.
And your peers want you to make mistakes too. Either they understand the
value of a fearless colleague or they just want to feel superior . . . if they even
notice. Loads of studies have shown that we tend to think people pay attention to
us twice as much as they actually do. This is the spotlight effect.
And you don’t realize it, but you want to do bad work too. Because in every
bit of bad work, there is always a kernel of something good. Bad work is 2 to
13 percent good. Your job is to pick through the mess you create and find that
Other people will help you find it. Let them.