Brian Krausz

I build internet things

How to Fail Gracefully

July 17, 2007

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter F, for failing. No, not because I am a failure or have failed at anything significant lately, but I did notice a pattern in failure worth sharing.

Everyone has failed and will fail at countless things in their life, no matter who they are (an obvious but often overlooked point). We will all do things we regret, be turned down for jobs, and have failed relationships (with the possible exception of one of my friends, who is a special case in and of herself…more on that in a future post). The entrepreneurial types will have failed startups, rejected business plans, and unattainable capital needs. You’d think with all this practice at failing, people would learn how to do it better. Still, many people are very bad failures, making an already sub-optimal situation even worse.

I’m openly guilty of it myself. Take my poker playing: when I’m playing well, I’m playing really well. Beyond just getting good cards, if I’m up I have the patience and poker face I would love to have all the time. But when I’m down, when I’m failing, I overcompensate. I act on emotions, call stupid hands, etc. I not only fail, I fail miserably.

On the other hand, in terms of relationships I fail quite well. I can read people well enough to see when things are going downhill. I can decide the best course of action and enact it as well as someone in such a situation could hope to. When I fail at relationships, I fail gracefully.

Which brings me to my point. Below I have laid out 5 tips for failing gracefully that I would recommend anyone, myself included, learn to practice:

  1. Take a step back — If you see things going downhill, do not simply push in the other direction. Analyze what is going on and figure out a solution rather than a quick fix. For example, if you’re losing customers, don’t just spend more on marketing, see where and why the customers are going. Maybe a competitor just released a new feature that kicks your ass. Maybe your servers are overloaded and giving slow responses. There are a million causes for anything and it’s much easier and more effective to stop a cause then implement a fix. This is the difference between a solution and a fix, solutions stop causes, fixes add a counter-cause.
  2. Get Input — At any given point in time regarding any given topic, there are most likely several million people who know more than you about it. Even with something you specialize in, there’s still probably a few hundred, if not thousand, who are better than you at it. And even if you are the best (and remember, only one person is the best, meaning it’s probably not you), someone will still know something you don’t about that subject. So swallow your pride and ask for some help. You’d be amazed at how helpful people are when you approach them as a student approaches a teacher. Pride only gets in the way of common sense.
  3. Know When to Call it Quits — also know as “not throwing good money after bad”. If you see all the signs, if you know that things are not going to get better, why spend an obscene amount of time fighting a losing battle. If you are fighting every day with your significant other and he/she refuses to talk things out, it’s time to move on. If you’ve burned through $2 million in venture capitol and nobody even knows your product’s name, nonetheless what it does, you’re out of luck. That’s not to say you shouldn’t give it your all: by all means do more than that. You should try to talk things out, you should try to get more funding, but learn the point at which the chances of success are so astronomically thin that you may as well throw your last dollars into the lotto, and bail out before that point.
  4. Learn Something — I know you’ve heard it dozens of time, but it bears repeating: if you do fail, learn something. Look back, determine where your main points of failure were, and vow never to repeat them. That way, given enough failures, your chance of success increase significantly.
  5. Make Sure You Gave It Your All — If you’re not giving 100%, what’s the point in even trying? You want to be able to look back and say that you poured your heart and soul into what you did, that there was not a single thing you could have done to allow you to succeed, because if you didn’t, then all you’d be left with is regret.

Here are several real-life examples I’ve seen of what people do that make them miserable failures rather than graceful failures:

  • Throwing Good Money After Bad — Always remember, you have to continue to eat (and feed a family, if applicable). Don’t risk your or your family’s well being for the sake of a dream (i.e. investing your entire retirement fund into a business that is falling apart).
  • Hiding the Truth — If you know things are falling apart, don’t hide it from others. They will eventually figure it out and resent you for hiding it, whereas they would have respected you more had you had the courage to be upfront about it (i.e. a relationship where one person is not happy and doesn’t tell the other person)
  • Losing Hope — My Mom always says “Hope for the best, and expect the worst”. This is much better than George Will’s stance that “The nice part about being a pessimist is that you are constantly either proven right or pleasantly surprised.” The problem with this view is that you will never take chances. Being a pessimist is fine for the here and now, but it makes for a very bleak view of the future. Instead, you should see the glimmer of hope, the chance of success, but recognize how slim it is, and appreciate Murphy’s law and all the potential for failure that goes with it (no real i.e. for this one, I just see too much hopeless pessimism in the world).

And there is one more thing worth mentioning: When Things Look Bad, Stop For a Moment and Reflect. Look back on how far you’ve come, and compare it to how far you have left to go. It may just help put things in perspective.

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