Ms ZiYou Failure

What if I told you I half my projects were a failure last year?

So, we’re having a real-life conversation and I mentioned my 50% failure rate last year – how would you respond? I’ve found people tend to fall into a few camps:

  • People who immediately give sympathy and assume failure is bad
  • Those who then ask what you learned
  • And finally, those who say you have not really been doing a lot then?

Where do you sit?

Failure is Bad Fallacy

Excuse the bold title, but this fallacy needs to be taken on.

I’m hereby stating that I absolutely believe failing is not bad. There is such a negative association with failure in the world today that is unwarranted. I want to debunk the narrative that failure is bad.

And more importantly, failing at something does not make you a bad person. You are not judged by your failures in life. Seriously nobody cares unless you killed people or brought down the financial system, you are safe.

So if you instinctively assume failure is bad – ask yourself why? Do you feel life is a zero-sum game, where you either win and get all the riches or lose and go home penniless? Real life is not a zero-sum game. What I mean by that – is that I don’t believe life is preset with two options failure=bad and success=good. While competitive sports may be a zero-sum game, real life is not.

Failure is not a bad thing in my books. Moreover, I believe failure is necessary to learn and build character. By allowing yourself to fail you can explore many new options and test your strengths.

Failure is a great learning opportunity

One of the great benefits of failure is learning and testing limits. As a practical example, let’s consider materials. How can we learn the strength of materials if we don’t test them to failure?  We need to test cloths and yarns to understand their properties under a wide range of conditions to determine their strengths.

Similarly, as a human, you need to apply yourself to the max to determine your strengths. Bodybuilders lift to failure to understand where their limits are – they keep increasing the weight until they can lift no more.

And one thing I failed at last year was weightlifting. However, I really enjoyed trying. I followed a program and tried to build strength. There was some progress, but let’s say I am not a natural. I can’t keep the correct form for squatting, even with a mirror. I can only benchpress the bar without weights. And I hate the bro-like atmosphere in the weights room at gyms. A failure in some regards – but a great learning experience for me.

Trying new things

But wider than that testing and learning is a great approach to try new ideas. However, if you want to test new ideas, you need to be comfortable with failure. As your first attempt is going to suck. As may your second. But by testing and refining your approach you will see your skill level increase with experience.

But this approach is very likely to lead to failure. And that is ok. Your new idea may be perfectly aligned to your skillset and it may all work out perfectly. More realistically it will be a failure. But a good failure that lets you learn something about yourself, and modify your approach next time.

And I’m happy to admit I failed at Pinterest – my graphic design skills are not up to scratch. I tried, read a lot and altered my approach. Then I came to the realisation – my sense of awesome graphics was too different from the general public. Moreover, I was not willing to change my designs to better attract people to click on them. Another good failure in my mind.

Growth Mindset

Another idea that has really gelled with me is that of a growth mindset – and I feel that is very relevant here. I’d define a growth mindset as someone who is able and willing to try to new ideas and approaches. Even when it takes you of your comfort zone.

I know I used to think I had a growth mindset when in reality I was only willing to grow in certain areas. Learn a new programming language – count me in! Learn public speaking – no, I can’t do that. And that realisation hit home hard. I had been deluding myself for years. I really did not have a growth mindset.

Failure is necessary for success

Ms ZiYou Failure

So, us humans can experiment on many different projects to understand our strengths. But to truly understand where we excel, we need to try many, many different approaches and options. I firmly believe success is only available once we have failed – it is only a very rare individual that succeeds the first time on everything.

Us mere mortals need to refine and pivot. We don’t exist alone and always need others input and feedback to thrive. Actual lots and lot of failures are necessary to succeed. Something that is not talked about enough is how much people that are mega-successful have failed. We tend to worship people as overnight successes that have been working on similar failed projects for years.

Unlinking success and personal fulfilment

And now to the mindset. I know my mindset used to be that only by succeeding in everything I could feel I had won and life and feel fulfilled.

And I don’t believe I was alone in this belief. Society spreads the message that success is good and should be celebrated. But the failures before the success are not celebrated anywhere near as prominently.

But really, fulfilment comes from within. You don’t need to succeed in everything. Failure can be embraced. I know I am succeeding in many areas of life (work, money), and failing impressively in others (non-existent love life). Yet I am the happiest I have ever been.

I’d encourage you to also unlink personal fulfilment from success – and instead consider failures a worthy thing to strive for.

Over to you

  • What are your thoughts?
  • How do you react to failure?
  • What was your failure rate last year?

Thank you for reading – please leave a comment below and join in the conversation. You can also connect on Twitter or contact me privately.


24 comments on “What if I told you I half my projects were a failure last year?

  1. I work in a sales position. Recently a job that was a dead cert was postponed indefinitely.
    A blow but back to business as usual.
    I learnt that you shouldn’t count your chickens and effort, adaptability and tenacity beat getting it right first time or luck.

    By the way our conversion rate to sales is around 20%.

    1. I love your approach GFF – and yeah, striving to get things perfect or right first time is not ideal.

      And that conversation rate is food for thought – you must need so much resilience to succeed in sales – mighty impressive.

  2. I think the key to dealing with failure is knowing when to cut your losses and move on, and when to persevere. As you say, failure is a part of life and definitely a part of winning. It’s how you deal with it that makes all the difference.

    1. Yes, that’s a really good point. How to decide when and how to cut your losses is a key part of failure. And those who succeed are always much better at dealing with failure.

  3. I’ve learnt a similar approach with rock climbing. I’d plateaued after 2 years of climbing and it was because I was just climbing in my comfort zone. I wanted to finish every climb I tried or I’d failed. I now spend 80% of my time climbing things I can’t finish. But every time I get a little further and so I make progress

  4. I think failure is where the biggest lessons are learned. When I start something I always consider failure a possibility and manage the risk so if it happens I will be able to “live to fight another day”.

    I understand that some people consider that you have to go “all in” in whatever you do without consider that failure is a possibility. Many successful people have this approach. But I just think is poor risk management. I´d rather fail, learn from it and go on to something else “unharmed”.

  5. I think you are conflating failure with experimentation here.

    Failure is an absolute state (in the eye of the beholder): all that can not be considered a success is a failure.
    * The train either arrived on time, or it did not.
    * The student either passed the test, or they did not.
    * All staff received equivalent pay for a given role, or they did not.
    * The footballer either scored the goal, or they did not.
    * The project delivered all of its scope on time and on budget, or it did not.

    Experimentation is a great way to test boundaries, challenge ourselves, stretch beyond comfort zones, etc.

    You conducted a weight lifting experiment.

    Physiologically any able bodied person is capable of getting better at lifting weights over time, give the right investment of time/effort/coaching/practice.

    You didn’t “fail” however, if the experiment was to give weight training a reasonable try.

    At the end of that time period you objectively evaluated the experience, and concluded it wasn’t for you.

    The experiment was successfully completed. The conclusion reached was an informed one. To me that isn’t a failure.

    You comment you won’t do public speaking. Yet you have launched a publicly accessible podcast! The only difference is your audience is asynchronous, which gives you a chance to edit and autotune out all the bad bits before publishing… just like many successful recording artists do! This too is an experiment… anyone with a voice and recording equipment can create a podcast. The interesting part will be whether you enjoy it, feel it provides sufficient return on your time investment, etc.

    I’m all for failing fast if you are going to fail at all. Yet it is better still to succeed.

    A limited cost, limited investment, limited time experiment is a very useful tool for determining what goals are worth pursuing. To me these are only failures if we don’t complete them.

  6. The first thought that came to me upon reading your first sentence was that a 50% failure rate also meant that you had a 50% success rate. Sounds a lot better?

    I’m with @Indeedably – you tried something out and it wasn’t for you. It would have been different had your goal been ‘I shall qualify for a weightlifting competition’.

    Right now, I don’t feel like I need to push myself too far out of my comfort zone or try new things. I already get pushed on occasion at work and since I’ve set this goal of mine to FIRE, if I don’t retire before 60, I shall have failed but I’d still be in a far better position than had I not tried.

    1. Hi Weenie – actually I like a high failure rate – and 50% is really too low – I need to up my game I think and try new things!

      I can so see your point of view – sadly I don’t get pushed or stretched at work, so the Type A in me does it myself.

  7. Perfect! Failing is all about refining what works & doesn’t work.

    It’s just as important to discover what doesn’t work, to know what you don’t want, and to be clear on what direction you don’t want to go in.

    It’s called learning and moving forward.

  8. I love your points about failing, and daring to admit failure. I’ve failed more times than I remember in the last few years, but every time I fail closer towards where I want to be!

    This morning, I baked my first ever sourdough bread that actually succeeded! It did get stuck to the pot, but it rose and was otherwise great! I think I’ve tried my hand at sourdough bread more than five times prior and failed miserably over the last five years. Persistence and a teachable mindset are key!

    1. Hi Kristine – yes I love that approach – failing closer to where you want to be.

      You got sourdough to work? That is awesome, and sound so tasty! One day I think I’ll get a starter and start making bread.

  9. If you asked me I would say I had a growth mindset but your post has made me realise that is only in certain areas. I’m happy to grow and try new things – but in a limited field. I need to think about that for a while.

    Have you heard the podcast “How to Fail” with Elizabeth Day? I found it last week and am currently binge listening – I’d highly recommend it. Listening to all the good things that come out of people’s failures really helps with mindset.

    1. Hi – good to see I’m not the only person with a growth mindset in some area…..and some places I just won’t go!

      I’ll look up that podcast – sounds right up my street.

  10. It took me a long time, but now I know failure is not a bad thing. You just have to learn from the failure and improve next time. I believe this is call Fail Forward. This post gives me a great blog idea. Next year, I’ll keep a log of every project I tried. I’ll write down what I learn from each project and learn from them. I’m very forgetful and usually it takes a few failures for the lesson to stick. Not too smart.

    Are you going to keep working on weight lifting? Maybe you should find a gym that caters to women more. Don’t worry about how much weight you can lift. You’re not competing in a body building competition. Just do what you can. Good luck!

    1. Thanks Jo – I like your log idea….Maybe I should do one and aim for a 75% failure rate?

      I gave up on lifting, I wasn’t very good and it wasn’t a great balance with running – I may go back one day!

What do you think?