Test Fast, Fail Fast

by Cameron Schaefer on June 16, 2008

I once had a teacher in 9th grade have us write down some principles for successful living. “Test Fast, Fail Fast” I scribbled down on the back of an assignment. “Wasn’t the point of life not to fail,” I thought to myself. Like a good student though, I folded the list up and stuck it in my wallet. I still have the list in my wallet today. Over the years I have come back to the list and have begun to realize the genius in my teacher’s words, specifically his insight on failure.

You see, what my teacher was getting at was a lifestyle of trying new things without fear of failure. A constant iteration of testing, failing, learning, testing, failing, learning; and all of this very quickly. Simply put, much more is learned from trying and failing then could ever be discovered solely by planning beforehand. And if you walk out this process quickly, you arrive at a success much faster and armed with more wisdom and insight than you ever could by standing on the sidelines analyzing the “fail-free” route.

The American entrepreneurial community has caught on to this idea more than anyone, viewing failure as a badge of honor rather than a scarlet letter. I have been told that some venture capitalists refuse to fund a business proposal put forth by someone who hasn’t previously failed in at least one or two other start-up efforts. Why? The experience of failure brings with it so many side-benefits that the person who has failed is actually better equipped than someone who has never tried before.

Two other people have recently peaked my interest in failure: Brad Feld and J.K. Rowling. Feld is one of the entrepreneurs I made reference to above that has been taking a deeper look at failure on his blog, Feld Thoughts. Check out his posts on failure here.

J.K. Rowling recently gave the graduation address to the class of 2008 at Harvard. She talked about the fringe benefits of failure as well as the importance of imagination. Watch the video of her brilliant speech here. Here is one of my favorite excerpts:

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Over the next few months I plan on making a study of failure and sharing what I discover with all of you. I want to know how we benefit from failure and why we fear it so much as well as how to overcome that fear.

Please send me any links on failure you think might be of interest to me. And comment below with your thoughts and stories of failure and whether or not you think they were valuable.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Shanel Yang June 16, 2008 at 9:14 am

Excellent post topic! Here is my contribution. My two prior “failed” businesses taught me very quickly the following lessons:

1. Don’t go lightly into any business venture with family or friends. But, if you do, at least make sure they have the same vision — and are willing to work just as hard — as you.

2. Don’t try to create a need for your product/service unless you have a lot of venture capital. The advertising/marketing costs will kill you! Think: Segway (10 years and $10 billion — yes, billion, not million!) It’s much easier to go with something people already need or want. But, don’t neglect what you love, either. The intersection between what you love and what the people need/want is the sweet spot that will guarantee your success in the long run.

3. Don’t go into debt to start a business, unless you are so confident in your product/service that you’re willing to bet your life on it. Keep your day job and start your business part-time to at least test the market and figure out the nuts and bolts of running your own business and that specific type of business. You can learn everything you need to know but it takes a lot of trial and error. A high tolerance for making a lot of mistakes but rarely the same ones twice, I am convinced, is the most valuable skill in eventually running a successful business.

I always learned more and better from my mistakes than my successes. My two “failed” businesses were no exception. Actually, I don’t consider them failures b/c the essence of each of them (one was image consulting for professionals, i.e., how to look, sound, act, and dress like a professional’ and the other was private coaching/tutoring for law school students) have been folded into my current business, which is my blog.

So, now I’m always willing to try new ideas if I think they might help me or my business. The quicker I try them, the quicker I learn if they are right for me, or, alternatively, I can just cross them off my list after finding out that they’re not. I’m 100% satisfied to know I really gave it a shot rather than wondering if I missed out on an opportunity simply b/c I didn’t want to leave my comfort zone. My goal is to fail quickly at everything so I can see how far I can really go in life. My mistakes/failures are the stepping stones to my ever-expanding world of possibilities!

Akshay Kapur June 16, 2008 at 12:20 pm

Cameron, this is surreal. I just got halfway through “The Art of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin this weekend, where failure is consistently mentioned as a key to growth. He delves deeply into the topic and its a fascinating, quick read throughout. I highly recommend it.

Before addressing failure as an event in one’s life, I’d address expectations first; of yourself, of others, of yourself in the eyes of others. The last one can be truly debilitating if your expectations are high.

Failure can and should be practiced, the same way martial artists practice falling. By lowering your expectations a little and taking a few more risks, you can gain confidence and reduce the separation anxiety from your current status quo. Without the expectation management step though, increased risk could spell trouble. You have to prepare to fall, if only in the back of your mind.

Things will catch you off guard once in a while no matter what you do. Again, same as martial arts, you hone your instincts towards falling (failure) to the point where an accident or an unexpected event becomes minor and you bounce back much more quickly. And testing, specifically microtesting ideas, businesses, thoughts helps you take the first steps to success. So you are right on with your four word catch phrase: “Test Fast, Fail Fast.” Its a catchy book title ;)

Catherine MacDonald June 17, 2008 at 5:01 am

Thank you for a great post! My husband and I regularly talk to our kids about how you have to fail your way to success in order to try to reduce the fear of failure that paralyzes so many people.

jrandom42 June 17, 2008 at 8:09 am

“The experience of failure brings with it so many side-benefits that the person who has failed is actually better equipped than someone who has never tried before.”

Does this apply to police, emergency medicine, combat or other areas that have lives on the line? Do such failures have any side benefits when they end up killing people? I think not. I think learning from failure at the expense the lives of others is definitely WAY too costly.

Cameron Schaefer June 17, 2008 at 8:40 am

@ Shanel,

Oh man, there are so many good ideas wrapped up in your comment I don’t know where to start. It is always great to hear first-hand accounts so I really appreciate you sharing yours. One of my favorite parts of your comment was:

“So, now I’m always willing to try new ideas if I think they might help me or my business. The quicker I try them, the quicker I learn if they are right for me, or, alternatively, I can just cross them off my list after finding out that they’re not. I’m 100% satisfied to know I really gave it a shot rather than wondering if I missed out on an opportunity simply b/c I didn’t want to leave my comfort zone ”

It’s true that simply being able to cross things off the list is a valuable part of failure. Sometimes the most paralyzing thing is having too many choices and options. Failure helps us narrow the scope and focus on what actually works.

Great comment!

@ Akshay,

You are always full of wise comments my friend. First, thanks for the book recommendation, I’ll definitely check it out. Second, I love the example you use of martial arts and practicing falling. That is such a wonderful symbol of why pushing yourself to failure is so valuable.

Finally, I completely agree that expectations play a huge role in how all of this plays out. Fear of failure normally links back to not letting people down, yourself included. Overcoming or changing those expectations is often much harder than the actual failure part…which most of us are actually pretty good at, haha!

@ Catherine,

Thanks for your kind words! Your husband and you are wise in teaching your children about failure. In doing so they will dare more and risk more…and most likely achieve much more.

@ jrandom,

No doubt there are certain times when the downside of failure completely outweighs the benefits. Also, there are different kinds of failure. Ultimate failure like you are talking about is certainly not what I am advocating practicing, nor is moral failure.

However, within each of the career fields you mentioned there are times in training, when lives aren’t on the line, where failure can be very valuable in helping one know their limits and learn new techniques.

As a pilot I fall into this category. Am I going to try something new on an approach with 100 passengers in the back? No Way! But, during training both in the simulator and in the plane it has always been my failures that have taught me the most about the plane and my abilities.

In the end, if I hadn’t failed on multiple occasions throughout the course of my aviation training I would actually be a much more dangerous pilot because I wouldn’t know my limits and I would think nothing could touch me.

Albert @ Headspace July 22, 2008 at 3:41 am

Nice post Cameron. Removing the fear of failure also allows us to start doing some of the things that we have long dreamed of doing. And they often turn out to be easier than we thought. Or different than we thought.

Albert@Headspace
http://thoughtsintime.co.za

Cameron Schaefer July 22, 2008 at 10:37 am

@ Albert,

You are absolutely right, the fear of failure is a huge hindrance to accomplishing big things in our lives. If we settle for only attempting the things we are sure to succeed at we will never grow…or find out, as you mentioned, that we are able to do more than we realized.

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