Failure, feedback and the struggle with destructive thinking

I didn’t get in. My dreams were crushed. I was weeping on the balcony in an apartment in Los Angeles ready to kick the neighbor’s door in because of pure disappointment.

I didn’t get into the new media master’s program at the Aalto University. That was last year.

I worked my ass off for the assignments and had experience in the field. On top of that, I totally nailed the interview—they said it themselves. And still, I failed to get accepted and it crushed me. They must have gotten something wrong.

When I did get accepted to the advertising creative program of Turku University of Applied sciences it was because I was great.

What a destructive way of thinking.

When things don’t go my way, it’s because of the external reasons. But if they do go my way, it’s of my own doing. A recipe for plateaued development.

In the Old World, failure is still stigmatized. An entrepreneur whose business didn’t succeed is a failure. A promising ice hockey player who doesn’t make it to the major leagues is a failure.

It’s often quoted that you learn from failures. But that’s not exactly true either. Business owners who have failed are not more likely to succeed the next time. In fact, there seems to be no correlation whatsoever.*

Why should we embrace failure?

Failure by definition is final. If you’ve failed, you’ve failed and that’s it… Or is it? What if you could detach yourself from your failure and take it as feedback?

Positive feedback is somewhat useless. It boosts our egos and makes us feel successful which helps our self-esteem—this is important. But it doesn’t teach us much else.

Negative feedback on the other hand is mostly actionable. But only if you are able to take yourself out of the mix can you take the feedback, assess its validity and correct course.

It’s important to assess the validity of negative feedback as it’s not always factual. Like it or not, some people want to hurt you. Some want to hold you down, and some are plain egoistic narcissists who can’t help themselves. But if you get the same feedback from multiple people, chances are it’s valid.

If you keep yourself in the mix you’re bound to get defensive and will go on the track of destructive thinking. With negative feedback—in fact with feedback of any kind—it’s paramount to understand that the feedback is not directed towards you but rather at what you do.

What does failure have to do with any of this?

Failure is the ultimate feedback. It’s no coincidence that you often read the quote: “fail fast, fail often.” It’s often linked to the Silicon Valley and the tech industry.

It’s not just a clever quote you throw in there when you fail but a system on which companies such as Facebook, Instagram, Google, Twitter, Airbnb and many others were built upon. It’s also the basis for the minimum viable product or MVP.** It should be quick to build and in case it flunks you improve it based on the feedback.

When you can build an environment where it’s safe to fail you tend to try more unconventional solutions. And if they don’t work you move on and learn from the feedback. Failing fast and failing often provides rapid feedback through less destructive means.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10 000 ways that won’t work.” —Thomas A. Edison

But what about those entrepreneurs who aren’t any better the next time around? You’ll develop thick skin as an entrepreneur. And for better or worse, you tend to ignore hardship. Tough guy or not, the destructive way of thinking often creeps up without you noticing.

And then, failure becomes final. But we won’t let that happen because we embrace the feedback, we verify the feedback and apply the lessons in the next round.

* According to the Smartcuts author Shane Snow. Read the book, it’s great.
** MVP or minimum viable product


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