Perceptions of failure

I recently had a conversation about failure that struck me as particularly odd and out of context. It was a conversation around the perception and culture of failure. There were a few things in it that really got me thinking about how culture and now the media play into our perception of failure. Then I came across this great post by Brad Feld on what’s next after failure and couldn’t resist writing a little more on the topic.

I’ve had a number of failures myself (some like those Brad discusses in his post and some that are completely different) – three failed startups, one failed marriage, many failed projects, been sued and won for crap I didn’t do, and so on. What is similar about all of them is that they can all be perceived in many ways. The simple fact that none of my startups have been successful and I keep getting jobs in larger companies is often viewed as a personal failure on my part by others in the startup community. The question I always get is that if I like being involved in the startup community, why the hell am I working for a large company – I should be out there building the next startup or working for the next startup and perhaps the fourth or fifth one will be successful. Perhaps they are right and that viewpoint is often reflected in the startup community as the “correct” viewpoint.

Of course that viewpoint is promulgated by the many people who talk about their failures and are viewed as the thought leaders. Most are either just coming off of a big failure or they are in a position of their successful fourth or fifth attempt and are reflecting on the days of failing and starting over. What they aren’t talking about though is what they are giving up to do those things, what the tradeoffs are in their lives, and perhaps what failures they are forcing in their own lives so that they can succeed in that particular aspect of life.

By trying again and again to build a company after failing over and over again are they truly failing as a parent? Are they failing as a spouse? Are they simply failing as a good human being and forgetting to be nice as Fred Wilson points out is so important? How about the other way around – if they are THE best parent, spouse, or friend in the world – are they failing in business as a result? These things are not independent and often they are ignored as a part of the conversation. Should I start a fourth or fifth company and attempt again or push harder to make it successful and abandon my kids in the process? Would being a better business man make my kids better people? Sure if I was successful they would have a great nanny, a great opportunity to go to the best schools, and so on. In fact that is the kind of thing you read about in every profile of great business men. Their kids are abandoned by them and they conquer the world with their business prowess. Is that a good thing – why aren’t we more critical of the fact that they failed as parents?

It isn’t always a perception between family and business that is the problem. Often the types of failures within the business world alone are perceived in nuanced ways as well. A few years ago I was building a consulting practice inside of an existing business. I had expertise in the space, an ability to attract other great consultants, and nearly every customer I spoke with eventually turned into a customer. I was growing this business in the wake of the economic collapse which resulted in slow growth, but I hit a good pace and really transformed a lot of the conversations we were having and drove a lot of success. Over time I saw a strategic problem, the solution that best suited most of our customers was one that would severely damage our margins and we needed to make a long term investment on figuring out how to deliver those solutions while maintaining our margins or we would not be able to sustain our customer growth. I’ll make the story short… I couldn’t get the investment commitment and ultimately was left with a business that would soon die. Now I had a choice:

  • Stay along for the ride until the end
  • Pivot and build something else with some of the same people
  • Go build this thing somewhere else
  • Find a home for the people and the customers and go do something else

I’ll save you the ending of the story because that is usually what “failure” posts are about. The problem with perception though is that all three of those choices could be perceived as a failure and all three could be perceived as the “correct” choice. It depends on the world view that the reader has come to have in life. Perhaps not sticking around until the end is a failure, perhaps not building this thing somewhere else is a failure, perhaps not pivoting is a failure, you get the point.

Decisions all have perception problems for the audience. Companies, managers, readers, customers, employees, kids, parents, teachers, and on and on all have different viewpoints in life and those viewpoints are what influence their perception. Saying one thing is absolutely a failure or another thing is absolutely a failure that can/should be learned from is a bad way to look at things. It really depends on the other things that are happening in the person’s life and the business they are in.

The next time you are passing judgement on someone’s failures or how someone perceives failure, I would encourage you to carefully think through the nuances that may or may not be present as well as the influences on your personal viewpoints of their decisions. Often these are taken for granted.


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