In one famous Nike commercial, basketball superstar Michael Jordan says, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
When I see an athlete break world records, or a dancer delivering a brilliant performance, it always looks so easy and effortless. When observing others’ success, you see only the results, which can lead to a variety of assumptions: They have the right genetics. They know the right people. They’re getting extra financial support. They’re more brilliant than I am. They’re just plain lucky.
It’s easy to point out all the reasons some people are so successful—but that’s because we don’t see them in the context of their failures. We rarely learn about the significant challenges and losses they’ve gone through, and we’ll certainly never know all of them. As a culture we’re brainwashed into believing we must never fail, never lose.
But I believe the opposite is true, that in order to really succeed you have to experience failure, sometimes over and over again. After all, we’re human; it’s impossible for us not to fail from time to time. In fact, I’m convinced that the key to success is startlingly simple: Fail fast.
When beginning anything new, whether it’s learning a different sport, getting a business off the ground, or trying your hand at playing the guitar, the first days, months, even years, are bound to be filled with “failures.” But as long as you’re paying attention to these failures and cherishing them as opportunities to grow, you’ll begin to see failing as a positive step—and a necessary one in achieving success.
For example, a while back, before comedian Kevin Hart was starring in blockbuster movies, my brother and I went to see him perform. His stand-up was flawless. On the drive back, we started wondering how he or any comedian could become so polished. When I got home, I watched every Kevin Hart YouTube video I could find, and noticed that some of his jokes definitely weren’t knockouts. It’s not that he wasn’t funny; he just wasn’t consistently funny.
It’s the perfect example of “fail fast,” an old computer programming principle still used by engineers to build successful products. Basically, a “fail fast” system hinges on the immediate reporting of any failure—or any variable that might lead to a failure—as a programmer is writing code. That way, system operators can get out in front of problems as they’re identified, which keeps them from compounding and bringing down entire systems. Similarly, because comedians like Hart are constantly testing new material, the final result is close to perfect. Fortunately, the “fail fast” method can be applied to any profession or endeavor.
Here are three important factors to keep in mind about the “fail fast” method.
Test your hypothesis
I like to apply the scientific method to any task. After devising a hypothesis, like “Can I run 15 miles each week?” I test it by seeing if I can accomplish my goal. If I can, I keep pushing— maybe my next hypothesis will be to see if I can run 20 miles each week.
If I “fail,” it’s back to Step 1 and creating a new hypothesis based on the results of the first experiment. I couldn’t run 15 miles in a week but realized I could run seven, so my next hypothesis is to see if I can push myself from there to 10 miles. Technically I never failed—I just discovered something about the current version of myself, then started working on a “system upgrade.”
Quantify your progress
It’s important to use data and analytics to measure your progress. If you’ve got a health-related goal, find a great running or calorie-tracking app and use it consistently.
If you’re trying to knock out a set of tasks in pursuit of a larger goal, make sure you’ve got some kind of review process in place so that at the end of every week, month, and quarter you can go back and measure how you did. Don’t just note your successes; also pay attention to the areas where you failed, or failed to make progress, and get to the bottom of what went wrong so that you can create a new hypothesis and start testing yourself all over again.
Don’t fear failure
Many of us are so afraid to fail that we find it hard to even get started on a task. A 2012 study titled The Complexity of the Relation Between Fear of Failure and Procrastination found that when students took on a new task, they fell into two camps. One camp was made up of students who were already competent in a subject and therefore didn’t experience much in the way of fear. In the other camp were the students who lacked experience in that area of study. In the latter group, the subjects’ fear of failure was found to correlate significantly with procrastination and a “problematic delay on academic and every-day-life tasks.”
Maybe you’re just starting a new gym routine but feel uncomfortable lifting on your own, or you’re trying to branch out into a new field of work like video editing but don’t have Final Cut down. Either way, you have to overcome your fear of failure—otherwise you may not even start.
Bottom line, people have failed before you, and people will continue to fail after you, so as you start a new venture, don’t beat yourself up over your own failures. Remember what Thomas Edison said: “I have not failed; I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Mario Armstrong is a digital lifestyle expert and appears regularly on NBC’s Today and CNN.
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