Make Mistakes—The Importance Of Failure

How do you feel when you make a mistake or worse fail at something? I’m guessing you don’t feel all that great, but what if I told you that you should. What if I told you that making mistakes and failing are the keys to improving yourself and attaining success?

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Today I want to talk about mistakes and failure and how both are essential ingredients to achieving anything. There are a couple of reasons for why I want to talk about this topic.

First was an episode of Chris Marquardt’s Tips From The Top Floor, which discussed passion. About 20 minutes in, Chris offered a tip for regaining lost passion. His advice was to give yourself permission to make mistakes and that making mistakes is the only way to get better.

I’m not sure it’s the only way, but it’s certainly an important way and we should all feel free to make mistakes so we can grow and learn.

As it also happens, a couple of my friends are thinking of starting their own businesses. Both have expressed some reservations due to the possibility of failing.

For both reasons I want to share some thoughts about failing as a means to success and how making mistakes helps you get better

My First Business

Let me start with a story of my first business, which failed before its first anniversary. It was in the summer of 2003 and I had recently been let go from the second job in a row as a result of the then poor economy and bursting of the internet bubble.

I was tired of looking yet again for a job and I was ready to go into business for myself. I’d been teaching myself to build websites after work for a year or two by that point. Working for myself was something I had wanted to for a long time, but like my friends I had reservations about failing.

A friend of mine was in a similar situation and after talking we decided to start a web design and development business. She would handle the design. I would handle the development. Together we’d handle the business.

We didn’t know much about running a business, though. We were still learning our design and development jobs and had to add in learning about business operations and taxes. There was also that thing about how to find clients that would pay us and keep the business going.

Before too long we could do our jobs well enough and we could run the daily operations of the business. We even managed to figure out our taxes. What we didn’t do well or learn fast enough was marketing.

Because we knew little of running a business we sought help from a local Small Business Administration office here in Colorado. On one visit to the SBA they gave us a packet of information with questions we were supposed to answer to determine our market.

We thought anyone who needed a site was a potential client and then figured anyone who had a site and wanted a new one could also be a client. That would include everyone on the planet and is a rather large market.

What we didn’t understand was the questions were designed for us to come up with constraints and define who wasn’t in our market. By narrowly defining your customers or clients you can more easily convince them to buy from you.

A more focused and well-defined market makes it easier to

  • Know where to reach potential customers and clients.
  • Know how to appeal to potential buyers so they’ll buy.
  • Tailor you products and services in ways that make them more enticing to your customers and clients.

It’s far, far easier to please a small group of people with similar interests and needs than it ease to please everyone. The latter has never been done and probably won’t ever be done.

Unfortunately my friend and I didn’t learn in time and our business closed due to a lack of clients. After our business failed I thought a lot about why and decided the reason for our lack of success was a lack of understanding about marketing.

My friend went on to do other things, but I built another design and development business (this one) by putting into practice what I learned failing in the first business. At the very least I was better at defining a smaller market to serve and 10 years later I am still here. I assume that means I’ve done something right.

Had the first business done better I may never have figured out marketing was the problem. It would have been easy to conclude we did things right because of early success and then blame something external when we later failed.

Fortunately we did fail and in failing I learned a few lessons in how to succeed.

Making Mistakes is How You Learn

As long as you learn something you haven’t made a mistake. The learning trumps the mistake. There are exceptions of course. Some mistakes can be devastating. Most aren’t though and as long as you learn something, you haven’t erred.

The only mistake you can really make is to quit something you want before you’ve given yourself a chance to succeed at it. Failure leads to success. One thing I’m sure all successful people would tell you is they failed more than once on the way to success and in failing learned how to succeed.

None of us is born with all the knowledge of the universe or even all the knowledge to succeed in a particular business. None of us can physically perform the tasks we do for work on the day we were born.

We don’t often get things right the first time around. We make mistakes. We observe and analyze what we did wrong. Then we try again, trying not to repeat the same mistake. It’s one way we learn, trial and error.

You can’t always know in advance if something will work. More often you don’t know. The only way to find out is to try. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, do your bet to understand why and try something else.

You can use guidelines and principles to help you in your attempts. For example you wouldn’t experiment with bright florescent colors when designing a bank’s website. Banks are much too conservative for that color scheme. Here a guideline saved you from making one specific mistake, though it doesn’t mean the color scheme you try will be the right one.

Guidelines can serve as a starting point for experimenting and exploring. They point to where others have found success and then you set off in that direction and make some mistakes on the way to getting it right.

I think this especially true of any work with a creative component as the guidelines for creative work tend to be more vaguely defined. Creativity is exploration. It’s trying different things just to see what the result will be. Most of what you try creatively won’t work. Most of where you explore will be the wrong path. But each mistaken step helps you find the right path.

Don’t Fear Failure

Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s ok to fail and err. It’s how we learn. We try. We make mistakes. We try again with new understanding.

Success is difficult to achieve and it requires different approaches for different people with different goals. There is no recipe for success. You have to break a few eggs and make a lot of meals before you cook dinner well. Ultimately you have to find your own way to success.

Making mistakes and learning from them might sound easy and obvious, but I know how difficult it can be. It’s hard for people to accept a mistake as their own. Making mistakes can leave you feeling bad and it’s easy to get down after a small mistake, let alone a large failure.

The trick is not to see a mistake as a permanent condition or failure as the only possible ending. The trick is to see both as part of the learning process and as obstacles to overcome on the way to success.

Most mistakes won’t have dire consequences. Some could, but the majority won’t even come close. See mistakes and failures as opportunities to get better and closer to your goal.

It can be hard to leave your comfort zone, hard enough that many of us try the same things in the same way we tried before. We try the same thing even though it didn’t work because it’s known and comfortable. We’re often more afraid of the unknown than the known and some will let that fear lead them to repeating the same mistakes. That’s another mistake in addition to quitting.

Better is to rise above the fear and try something different, scary or not. Trust in the process of try, learn, try again. Make mistakes and fail. It’s how you get better and eventually succeed. Let getting things wrong become part of an iterative process for getting them right. Make mistakes to learn and improve your business, your creative focus, or yourself.

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