Fail to Succeed

“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.

27 thoughts on “Fail to Succeed

  1. Toby Marrister

    Very good article. I love the idea of benchmarking failure — I have not thought of thought — that might be the missing link to actually encourage people to fail more. Failure is very hard and extremely emotionally painful. I have friends that get really upset when they lose at non-important things like board games. So getting people to understand why they should fail often is very important.

  2. Aboer

    I generally agree. As Esther Dyson says, “Always make new mistakes.”
    My rule of thumb: Failure is good and should be encouraged — if you can fail *cheaply and quickly*.
    In many professions, failure is really expensive. For example: for lawyers, doctors, accountants and civil engineers — the consequences of failure far outweigh the incremental patient or project. A bad review for a new restaurant can kill the business. Forgetting the third federal agency you want to eliminate can lose you the presidency. And in dating; it depends on your objectives — while failure can be cheap and quick if your objective is to date a lot of 9’s — but it can be expensive long term if you hope to marry a 10. End of the day: failure has a real cost — to one’s reputation and emotional well being. Some bear that cost better than others. The true cost of failure is also frequently overestimated — humans hate to lose more than we like to win. Nevertheless, failure should only be encouraged when the benefits outweigh the costs — and that is not always the case.

  3. Auren Hoffman

    Andrew: very good points. Failure obviously depends on what one fails at. If I’m competing in the Indy 500, I want to win. So I am going to drive fast which will certainly increase my mistakes. But I don’t want to drive so fast that I crash (or worse, get killed).

  4. Jen Cheng

    Everyone knows that failure is really important. Every venture capitalist says “fail often” often. But failure still stings bad. Woman often settle for less-than-optimal mates because they are afraid of asking men out. So they wait until they are asked out (often by people that are less desirable then themselves) and they settle.
    One thing people can so to reduce the sting of failure is to find a less stingy way of failing. In the dating example, women can approach men through an online dating site where the sting of a rejection is much less than when it comes in person.

  5. Matt Levy

    As an Engineer, it s good to be reminded of failure. Keeping the right balance between perfection and pragmatic is a constant lesson that you have to re-learn, again.

  6. Citizenworld

    I love the article. I couldn’t agree more that each failure leads you closer to success. During my earliest days in sales roles I distinctly remember a lightbulb going off in my head when I heard the adage “Every ‘no’ brings you one step closer to a ‘yes’.” It was a serious “ah ha” moment for me when I digested what that meant. I always encourage the people on my teams to push their boundaries and not fear failure, even though the results from it can sometimes hurt in the short-term.

  7. Neil

    Great article Auren! Many people throw around the phrase but few have made the effort to operationalize it in the context of particular job positions and benchmarks. It would be a great subject for a business book.
    Reminds me of this song:
    The topic also reminds me of shortcomings in the science world, where we fail to chronicle and propagate info about failed experiments, even though doing so would greatly reduce societal costs.

  8. Ale

    Magnificent post Auren. congratulations. I will fwrd it to my children. We should put together a Failure Conference where all Entrepenurs go and talk about their failures and rejections.

  9. Geoff

    to be perfectly honest with you there are aspects to what you wrote that with my NLP/self-help lens I would slightly change. for example, simply using words like “failure” or “rejection” lights up all of the neurology associated with such words, which unless you lead people into a better place can leave them with all the feelings they have had at times in their lives they perceived themselves to have failed or been rejected. that is, even though the intent is to lead them there, the “logic” of the words is often not powerful enough to overcome the “emotions” of them. if you like we can discuss a small change to the way you constructed this article that would significantly change where you lead people.
    people like you, serially entrepreneurs aren’t wired the same way. you’re people who like Jobs and Churchill are simply bigger and stronger than that. people who’ve learned that a very powerful way to overcome these irrational mentally constructed types of fears is to go out and do it – like the title of one of my favorite books – feel the fear and do it anyway.
    for those that can’t make that type of leap, because it’s so prevalent i have a lot of experience in “re-programming” away in others the concept of failure. that is, rather than teaching people to “overcome” the fear or to “act anyways” using hypnosis/nlp i typically follow a route of “deleting” the concept altogether – meaning that just as they have constructed what it means to fail or be rejected, i just as easily remove the concepts altogether. because it’s such a deep concept for many, i often do this through a series of steps.
    1. story-telling around gaming – e.g. like playing gears of war, when you die, you just start again, playing a new game. you don’t think about how you “failed” or think about if you’ll “fail” again, you simply know it’s a game and the point is to keep trying and keep making progress
    2. then i “nest” a story about edison and his 10,000 “failures” to invent the light bulb, which he himself “re-framed” simply as finding 10,000 ways that didn’t work.
    3. then to ensure i’ve blasted away I tell a third story about being in school. that the concept of failure is so hard-wired into many of us because of the way our educators and class-mates treat us when at age 9 we put up our hands and answer a question. when we get it “right” we are rewarded, but when we get it “wrong,” we get snickers and a big red X across our page, which for many is debilitating and significantly diminishes their ability to try again for fear of getting it wrong. (btw, think about how changing this one small aspect of education would liberate many people from these types of irrational fears)
    4. and after a little testing if all that hasn’t worked, i go for full-on hypnosis, regressing people back in time to all the times in their lives that they tried something that didnt work and just kept going. reminding them of how rewarding it was to go from being unconsciously incompetent at something to becoming an expert. like universal experiences such as a kid learning to ride a bike or individual experiences such as a great accomplishment that required someone to persist through failure or role models such as Abe Lincoln –
    im glad you wrote about this topic. to me it is one of the most important topics to helping individuals and us collectively to keep innovating and creating the world we all want to be a part of. a world that inspires people to do things that others have not done and to constantly live on their edge pushing the boundaries of what they believe to be possible.

  10. Guillermo

    I really enjoyed this and I like the idea of a personal benchmark. The reference to speed made me think of the quote about racing – “If you’re in control, you’re not going fast enough.” It was attributed to Parnelli Jones. One of my favs is Fangio – to finish first, you must first finish.

  11. Fuad Efendi

    Looks like we read the same books 😉 but those books were inspired by sales people and reapplied to dating; and now what I see… From dating back to sales?
    Don’t forget about typical rejection rates in a science such as chemistry, physics, …

  12. Malcolm Duerod

    Auren – I always enjoy reading your summation blog. Great article breaking down a practical approach to failure. Capturing learnings from failure is also an overlooked process in the workplace and life. Journaling is a great way that I have found to start this process. Also mentoring helps give you prespective on the true root cause(s) of failure by those who have failed before and can recognize your patterns. I am currently working on a project that most don’t want to tackle due to the high chance of failure. I look at it as a great opportunity to help others find their potential in life.

  13. CJ Guinness

    A quote from Teddy Roosevelt:
    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

  14. Fuad Efendi

    Aureen, I read your article second time 😉 very interesting. It started to happen to my business right now; I was forced to raise some quality/pricing and to reject some imaginary opportunities (in order to find real ones).
    Thank you.

  15. Jeremy Lichtman

    Couple of points:
    1) As Aboer said, there’s failure and then there’s failure. At some point a really massive failure can result in externalities (i.e. bankruptcy) that act as a barrier to future successes. Fail fast may not prevent that.
    2) The large number of articles on why its good to fail are resulting in a lot of young entrepreneurs (who don’t yet understand the subtleties of the argument) actively trying to fail, rather than trying to succeed. I’ve seen this with many of the startups that I’ve advised in the past couple of years. Its hampering their ability to do anything useful.

  16. AlisaBog

    Also, always succeeding makes one lose perspective. You become convinced of your own superiority (or the superiority of your own ideas or decisions). However, you being right is not likely to last forever, and having this outlook will make it very hard for you to recognize it when you’re finally wrong.
    Great post!

  17. Marc Marseille

    Great post…after many failures I began to think that something was wrong with me, but the one thing I never did was quit. In fact, I hated the fact that I could not quit…I guess mediocrity was never in my plans.

  18. mobile spy

    My life moto is: “Success without honor is an unseasoned dish; it will satisfy your hunger, but it won’t taste good.” And i always try to stick to it.

  19. Vivek

    Whats the bench mark for starting companies and making them sucessful ? 🙂

  20. Larry

    I believe Woman are to afraid of being rejected . They would be surprised at how often the results would be positive if they asked men out !

  21. James Jones

    One of the early lessons that I learned in the military was the importance of distinguishing rubber balls from crystal balls. As an Army Officer, I was expected to juggle many balls. However, it was critical that I learned to identify the crystal balls which could never drop. As a Field Artillery officer, nuclear weapons and as a Paratrooper, airborne operations safety were crystal balls. To achieve excellence, there were many other rubber balls and I had to juggle more and more of these with the understanding that some would drop.
    I judge organizations by their willingness to accept failure. Today, one of the top performing companies in technology is Supercell. The 85 person company was recently acquired with a $3B valuation and, in April, they received an investment at a $850M valuation. The company celebrates failures…
    Mr Paananen, the CEO, has a subversive streak. He gives the impression that failure at the company is in some ways celebrated more than success. The new games are developed by teams, or cells – hence the name, which also denotes a powerful thunderstorm – of five to 10 workers, all working independently. If a game is killed off, every member of the team receives a bottle of champagne. The reward for success? “Beer.”
    Organizations who fear failure are in the next categories. The worst categories are companies that fear success. Yes, these companies exist. There are companies and managers who fear succeeding because it puts them in a spotlight that may bring scrutiny or attention during the next round of layoffs.
    Auren is right again. Risk taking ability is critical to success.

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