Permission to fail
We’ve been over here thinking a lot about failure. And not just the failure to keep those unrealistic New Years resolutions. The start of a new year usually brings upon lots of talk about improvement; many of us resolve to be some sort of better version of ourselves. But there’s one resolution that doesn’t get much airtime: failing. It’s one of the most uncomfortable parts of life, but we all do it sometimes. Great athletes do it, successful CEOs do it, and flourishing brands do it. Losing or failing in something, whether it’s a game, business bid, or an elected position is no fun for anyone. It’s a blow to the ego and can make us question our capabilities and value. In that pivotal moment after a failure, we have the ability to choose whether to wallow in self-doubt and pity, or use it to set a fire within ourselves to do better next time. While we don’t set out to fail at our endeavors, it’s the willingness to do so that makes us better.
Take Reshma Saujani for example. Saujani was a Yale graduate finance attorney who in 2010 suspended her finance career to become the first Indian-American woman to run for Congress. She lost that race (by what she calls a humiliating margin), but while campaigning, she had noticed that the computer classes in the New York City schools she visited were comprised of mostly all boys. That struck a nerve, and she started Girls Who Code, an organization dedicated to ending the gender disparity in computer science, and increasing the opportunities available to girls from minority backgrounds or low-income homes. While Girls Who Code was picking up momentum, Saujani had a second political loss in 2013 for public advocate, which was the impetus for the organization to really skyrocket. She had become skilled at raising money while campaigning, so she now used those skills to secure classroom space and funding for Girls Who Code from major brands like Google and Twitter.
Girls Who Code now has 90,000 students and alumni from all fifty states that have been introduced to computer science and given a nurturing environment. Even more important than the education and tools, these girls were given permission to fail. Away from the mostly male hyper competitive coding culture, students realized that failing was part of getting better. And that approach is working: the program’s alumni are becoming computer science majors at 15 times the national average rate. Reshma Saujani said of starting Girls Who Code, “My whole life, all I wanted was to give back. And in losing that campaign, it opened my eyes up to the different ways you actually can make an impact.”
Here at Beach Lion, we always give ourselves permission to fail. Those failures may happen behind our office doors before clients see them, but they’re an important part of our creative process. As Creative Director Mike Nolasco mentions, “If you're not failing at something, you’re not growing and not trying enough new things. You have to put yourself out there and not play it too safe. What you learn from failure is fuel for future success. Life is way too short to remain static.”
Embracing failure isn’t just important for innovative start-ups and creatives, it’s key to keeping giant corporations from becoming static and stale. A leader of such a massive company that embraces failure is CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos. While Amazon has obviously experienced great success, there have also been plenty of very expensive failures. Amazon Destinations (a booking site), their smartphone, the Fire Phone are both duds that cost the company millions. And while Bezos compared those failures to a root canal without anesthesia, it’s understood that these types of missteps are critical to the overall success of the company.
Another costly failure was a site for auctions, named Amazon Auctions. The site didn’t pan out, and then evolved into an effort called zShops, which also failed. Eventually, the auction idea evolved into Amazon Marketplace, an e-commerce platform owned and operated by Amazon that allows third-party sellers to sell new or used products alongside Amazon's regular products. Marketplace sales now represent around 30% of Amazon’s sales. As Bezos said, "To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment. Most large organizations embrace the idea of invention, but are not willing to suffer the string of failed experiments necessary to get there."
And that’s the real key in our eyes; invention and innovation are critical to all kinds of amazing growth, but you can’t get there if you don’t try. And no business or person is capable of really trying to innovate without failing sometimes. Of course we all try not to fail, but when it does happen, we do a disservice to ourselves to not acknowledge and study it, to use what we’ve learned and do something even bigger and better than we did before. As Henry Ford (who had a slight bit of success in life) said, “failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” Here’s to a more intelligent 2019!