Fail Fast, Don't Fail Fast

Originally published 1/10/2017

Over the last couple of years, the mantra of “Fail Fast” has risen to the top of the buzzword list, and is now quickly losing favor.  It’s not just that the phrase has become commoditized and therefore lost some of the punch it used to pack, but many people, in my opinion, lose the whole point.  Too much emphasis is put on the fail part, and not enough on the fast part.  I’ve heard people criticize the “fail fast” methodology because it “encourages people to look for failure or try to fail.”  When I hear this, I wonder if the person saying this has any idea how ridiculous they sound.  Of course it’s not about intentionally trying to fail.  It’s about recognizing that if you want to do something new, meaningful, or that challenges the status quo, failure is inevitable.  But you want to get good at recognizing the failure quickly and making adjustments based on what you’ve learned.

I recently had an experience that by all accounts was a failure.  My initial hopes and expectations were dashed, and I was forced to question my path at a deep level.  I took a trip to explore what I was convinced would be the next step in my career, thinking I’d get my feet wet in the environment and make some new connections.  The visit turned out to be a slap in the face that shook me to my core.  I failed.  It was miserable.  But in this particular instance, given the present circumstances, failure was inevitable.  I’m so glad I took action and failed fast and early, rather than waiting another six months before realizing this endeavor was doomed.  The beauty is that by failing now, I was less invested in the idea than if I had poured more energy, time, and money into it.  The experience was terrible, but I know I nipped the suffering in the bud by figuring things out quickly.  And now I have more time to pivot and figure out a more viable option.

At its core, inaction stems from fear.  We all have fears, whether they are of failure, rejection, embarrassment, the unknown, or something else entirely.  But the root of what keeps us stuck in place is fear.  I’m certainly not immune to this.  But what I learned to do a few years ago was to shift my fear of failure into the fear of not knowing.  I realized I would rather know something definitively, even if the answer was not in my favor, than to wonder, “what if?”  Living in a fantasy where everything goes your way and you’re always right may sound nice in theory, but you don’t learn anything new in that world.  Your assumptions are never challenged, and you are starved of opportunities to grow as a person.  I find it’s more fulfilling to come up with ideas, then take action on them.  There are many variations on the quote, but the essence of, “you’ll only regret the things you did not do” rings true.

All these ideas fit into a philosophy I’ve been calling “rapid prototyping your life.”  It’s about taking chances, and taking action, to know for sure.  You don’t go out seeking failure, but you embrace the wrong turns and the stumbles, knowing that you can learn from each experience and make a better choice next time.  I had a chance to see Tom Chi speak a few months ago, and he put it really well when he said that by sitting around talking about things, we’re just guessing.  If you wait until the best guesser in the room makes a convincing case about a big project, then you can find yourself in a situation where you’re two years in before you realize it’s a complete failure.  Instead, you can take immediate action, build a prototype, and test your guesses.

Think you want to be a photographer?  Sign up for classes, or get in touch with your friend’s uncle who runs a photography business and ask to be his apprentice.  You might get 3 weeks in and realize you hate it, or your whole world could open up as you discover a true passion or calling.  Most experts who enjoy what they do love to share their craft with the enthusiastic novice.  This approach is simple, but not easy.  Fear is a ferocious beast, and it takes tenacity and practice to overcome it.  That’s why it’s helpful to channel your fear into something that forces you to take action.  For me, it was the fear of not knowing.  For you, it could be something as simple as making a public declaration of your intent, and then you’re forced to do something about it for fear of looking like someone who doesn’t keep their word.  Or maybe it’s the fear that you’ll end up on your death bed saying, “I wish I had done that…”  Whatever your reasons, I encourage you to take the chance, try something new, test your guesses, for that’s the only way we can learn and make better decisions in the future.