“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
– Winston Churchill
To truly succeed, you must fail. And you must fail a lot. We all know this, we have all heard this hundreds of times … but failing is still incredibly emotionally difficult, hard to overcome, and daunting to confront.
Encourage failure and you will increase large successes. This article will cover:
- Why one must fail often to really reach one’s potential
- Why people who deal with rejection have 10x earning potential
- Strategies for confronting and dealing with failure
Failing often will help you reach your potential
If you are not failing often enough, you are most surely settling.
In most fields, a good success rate is about 25%. If you are succeeding more than that, you are likely not innovating enough or you are settling. It is likely that your fear of rejection is stifling your growth.
The top salesperson in almost every organization also usually has one of the highest failure rates. She takes more at-bats, she varies her pitch more, and she goes for bigger sales. In short, she takes more chances, gets feedback, and iterates quickly.
By contrast, often the lowest performing salespeople have the highest close rate. I once met a salesperson who had an astonishing high 50% close rate. Guess what? This guy was selling only “safe” products, never iterating, and not taking chances.
Salespeople with really high close rates are too afraid of rejection. They need to be taught to fail more.
Why do some guys date people way more beautiful/interesting/healthy than themselves? What you don’t see is that this guy will often approach twice as many dating prospects; the only way for a “6” to date a “9” is by pursuing lots of 9s. It is easy for a 6 to get a 4 – you will rarely be rejected if you set your sights low. But if you want to go for that 9, you have to be ready for a lot of rejection.
The good news is: if you learn from the rejection and really focus on iterating your approach, you’ll likely land that 9. And you’ll also gain confidence in other areas, and soon you’ll actually be a 9 yourself (or at least better than a 6).
It is a bad sign if you are an entrepreneur and every investor you meet with wants to give you a term sheet on your terms. Either you should be going after better investors or you should be insisting on better terms. A lack of rejection is the surest sign that something is scarily wrong.
Let’s think about rejection in the context of building products. If you are a software engineer and every test on your code passes, that means you are likely taking too much time before you run your code. You could be thinking about every corner case. This might be the right attitude if you are writing software for nuclear reactors—but it is death if you are focused on a consumer internet application.
Lack of failure also often means lack of speed. Speed inherently breeds mistakes. Drivers are much more likely to get into accidents as they increase speed. But you’ll never win the Indy 500 moving at 70 miles per hour.
Lack of innovation is often due to a fear of rejection. People don’t want to seem unreasonable. They want to get along socially. That “don’t rock the boat” feeling is often manifested because people are afraid of being rejected by their colleagues, friends, and society. This is often the case in any large bureaucracy that breeds extreme political correctness. Fear of failure often means that people are too worried about putting their neck on the line. They stop innovating and they focus on fitting in. “Fitting in” is death – to paraphrase George Bernard Show, all progress comes from unreasonable people.
"I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can't accept not trying."— Michael Jordan
High rejection rates = higher earnings
People who get rejected more often earn more. Much more. Rewards often follow risks and people’s intolerance for rejection is one of society’s biggest perceived risks.
Why do marketers make about half what salespeople make? Because when someone rejects a marketing message, it is a rejection of the product. But when someone rejects a salesperson, it is felt as a personal rejection. Personal rejection stings. It hurts. People actually cry when they are personally rejected. We’ve all felt that sharp pain of rejection and we hope to avoid it whenever possible.
Almost all the highest-paid writers have incredible stories of early manuscripts being rejected by hundreds of publishers. Writers that shy from rejection often end up working for a marketing organization or a large news outlet and rarely have any type of lasting impact.
And this is true in almost every field: science, business, politics, arts, society, medicine, and more. Those who can partially overcome their fear of rejection are the only ones that can change the world.
"In order to succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure." — Bill Cosby
Using benchmarks to cope with rejection
The number one way to cope with rejection is to normalize it so you can benchmark yourself against others.
Think about it from a sports perspective. If you are a Double-A ball player, you have a benchmark you should be hitting against. If you are hitting .300, you are doing really well (even though you are failing 70% of the time). That’s because everyone’s stats are public so you have a good idea of what is good and what is not good. If you are hitting .250, it probably means you need to work on your swing. But if you are hitting .450, it does not mean you are amazing … it means you need to start playing against better competition and move to Triple-A. By being successful 45% of the time, you are, in fact, succeeding too often.
Benchmarks like these are helpful, because they give you an understanding of if you are getting rejected the right amount or outright failing. If I were playing Double-A baseball, I’d have a batting average of approximately 0%. Failing too much would give me a lot of good information (to move to another profession, like becoming an Internet entrepreneur).
In baseball, benchmarks are published and easy to come by. Organizations can help their employees better deal with rejection (and, in turn, push themselves) by publishing failure rates and then explicitly telling employees they should aim to fail a bit more than the rate.
A software development organization could follow suit by publishing the rate at which tests break. Sales orgs could publish the percentages of cold calls that turn into warm leads. Companies could publish the rates at which employees accept their offers.
Most individuals punish themselves every time they have a minor failure. And while they might implicitly know that there is a high rate of failure in any task, they take each rejection as if that task had a 100% success rate, and they were just a dummy who could not succeed. That is being too hard on oneself.
With a benchmark, you can cope with rejection better. Let’s say that you are a CEO and one of your employees leaves your company for a competitor (the ultimate rejection). You should understand the benchmark rate before you beat yourself up. In fact, if none of your employees leave, you might not be pushing the envelope enough. But a high rate of turnover might be a warning sign that you need to radically change your company’s culture.
Similarly, if every prospect you offer a job to accepts, you’re doing something seriously wrong. You’re likely not fully explaining the culture, the long hours, or the fact that the office dog Melvin takes random poops on employees’ chairs. Or you are setting your sites too low. In my experience, a good benchmark to follow: 30-60% of your offers should be rejected.
In the absence of a failure rate to benchmark, make one up. A good rule of thumb is: have a success rate of 25%. About 75% of the ideas you propose, new initiatives you take, and client engagements should not go to the next step. And that’s healthy.
"My reputation grows with every failure." – George Bernard Shaw
Special thanks to Jared Kopf for his topic inspiration and to Gizem Orbey for her edits.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.