Here’s to the F word all the cool execs like to talk about.
Go back to school days and chances are that your parents (or guardians) would have been quite pissed if your report card had a F anywhere on it. Little has changed. Students are instilled with a fear of failure by the very adults that idolize the concept in the world-wide workplace. It’s not ok to fail while at business school, but business? That’s another matter.
Each day a new podcast, article, book or class disseminates a mythological origin story of a mortal turned deity, perched atop a cloud floating above a past littered with failure(s), standing tall, arms crossed, teeth whitened. They’re all great feel good stories. Chronologically they seem to be plagiarized from a failed screenplay; dreamer has idea, nobody listens, suffers setbacks, becomes desperate, has an epiphany while reading the eviction notice, harnesses the pain to create an app from parents’ garage, uses words like pivot and scaleability and even SaaS, creates traction as those words are noticed by celebrity investors serendipitously googling themselves saying those exact words in a recent interview, becomes a billionaire even though the company has never billed a single $, exits, buys an island somewhere, becomes a philanthropist then poster child of suburban teens in their fifties. Or something along those lines.
Whatever the narrative, failures and epiphanies seem to dance together, one requiring the other to tango, all while being filmed, then edited, for the daily TikTok upload.
Fail forward. Fail fast. Fail cheap. Fail often.
We marketing types are kind of to blame. What is one to expect from a department stacked with quirky folks identifiable by their love of their own reflections, voices and imported cars. This is after all a group with immense foresight, talent and ability. When marketing folks fail, they repackage it into something dressed in aspirational terminology. Turn the negative into an advantage. Package it. Make it desirable. Make it appeal rationally and emotionally. Repurpose a manufacturer’s junk box into lucrative sex toys for octogenarians. People of the world will rejoice. As they should.
Segmentation strategies can push the concept to many different profiles. VCs don’t want to hear about failure. But to fail forward? That’s awesome. One step closer to a real live unicorn. You may need those wings in case ‘forward’ is off the edge of a cliff. Overnight success? No, too easy. It’ll attract too many imitation acts and you won’t stand out. You might look ‘lucky’. Failing fast while you were sleeping, somewhere between midnight and 12:30. That’s something to dream about. Start-ups without investors can’t afford to fail in any other way than to fail cheap. Unfortunately for them, in most cases this failure is permanent. But hey, anyone can try again and again, and then add fail often to that illustrious bio. Superb.
Contrary to what airlines (and indeed, marketers) try to sell us, the journey from airport a to airport b sucks. There are queues at check-in. Queues at the toilet just before landing. Drunk middle-aged men hitting on young hostesses who are just trying to do their job (Oh yeah, sure buddy, she’s into chunky married men). Queues at arrival. More queues at the taxi or car rental stands. No wonder environmentally-conscious celebrities fly private. It’s fast, the environment they’re cocooned in is serene and the only prying eyes are fixated on a carefully curated social feed updated in real time. Saving the planet looks great on Instagram.
Back in the real world, people that can’t afford failure of any kind, because they have read Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, feel kind of gaslit. Some just try to build small businesses only to end up bankrupt and labeled failures. Just not the good kind. It’s funny how food and shelter take precedence over self-actualization, translated as likes and followers. Failure is not the same as a mistake. Nor is it tweaking a concept that has not taken off in an expected manner. Failure, quite simply, is a negative. It has connotations of lack, such as ‘lack of success’ or ‘lack of imagination’. Try adding forward, fast, cheap or often to either of those definitions.
Failure, in all its catchy new forms, has become a buzz word that has been repackaged for all to consume, because we all fail at something, at some time. It is inevitable. We are all fallible. We all make cheap mistakes, fast mistakes, in the present, forward towards the future, often. Media savvy executives and intellectuals can talk a great game, but if you fail on a big project at work, behind the scenes in obscurity, can you tell upper management (or the board) that it wasn’t failure per se, but that you failed forward. If it was small, you didn’t fail cheap, you lost money and that is easy to replenish, just ask the Fed. If it was fast, maybe you have a quarter before the numbers come out to find another job. If you fail often, you’re most likely reading this from your in-laws’ basement in tribute to Maslow’s bottom tier.
Failure is not fun. We don’t read about the countless lives destroyed by it. We’re fed a daily diet of embellished concepts by a minority of great story tellers that seem to get richer by the second stuffing us with this junk, and that in itself is a #fail for me.