4
Micah July 9th

True Failure

The other night, I was down at Techstars listening to the companies practice their pitches. Whats always most interesting to me is how the companies have shifted over the course of three months. Some have shifted a ton (one company completely restarted), and a few have made really minor adjustments.

It always reminds me of the love/hate relationship entrepreneurship has with the concept of failure. There are volumes written about the value and importance of failure in the growth of a business. I wont rehash any of it here.

Somewhere, somehow, failure has become ok. Even more egregious, failure without learning has become ok.

True failure teaches us humility, which is the most important element, albeit the least sexy element, in true success.

True failure doesnt occur because of market conditions, or because of anyone else. True failure is directly tied to you and your actions (or lack thereof). For someone to be successful on a massive scale, they must experience true failure in their lives.

When I was in college, I played lacrosse. I came to college looking for a sport to play, and was lucky enough to have a friend introduce me to the sport of lacrosse. That first year, I started on defense on our JV team, which, despite losing a ton, was a blast.

As it is with college sports, your final win-loss record was much less important than beating the rival teams. During my time at UC Davis, that was Chico State and Sonoma State, given that our coach had come from Sonoma.

We traveled up to Rohnert Park to play a late season game. I remember playing harder than I ever had in the first half, and collapsing on the sideline for half-time. By the fourth quarter, I was spent, but the score was tied, and we went into overtime. (For those that dont know, overtime in lacrosse is sudden death, first goal wins).

The teams went back and forth for most of overtime, with neither team really making much of their offensive possessions. Nearing the end of the period, a Sonoma State attackman got the ball behind the goal. I dont remember his number or name, but I clearly remember him driving to the goal towards my left. I stepped up to slow his drive and push him to the outside. As he neared the goal, he leap up in the air.

I push him as hard as I could.

He shot the ball over my left shoulder. I remember it as if it happened in slow motion.

The ball shot down towards the back of my right ankle, and I turned to watch our goalie slide over to stop the ball. Expecting a bounce, he leaned out over the spot he expected the ball to travel.

It didnt bounce. It slipped into the lower right corner of the goal.

I watched it, helpless. Knowing that I had just had the winning goal scored on me.

Me.

Yes, one could argue that the goal should have stopped it, or that the team should have won earlier, but the truth is that at the exact moment when it mattered; I failed. Truly failed.

I watch and talk with companies constantly, and they constantly talk about failing fast, and pivoting. Its clear to me that most have never really tasted true failure, and that their pivots are reactive based on a lack of immediate success, or because the perceived path is harder than they first imagined.

Failure happens. This is true. Failure is a process, and its steps on the path. This is also true. But failure is not great. Failure is not something to strive for or accepted.

Some of the greatest entrepreneurs/investors I know understand this subtle difference. Do you?

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I love the concept of failure. I look for it in the people I hire. I look for it in the people that I admire.

Failure, for a lack of a better word, is good.

But is it always? Can there come a point where too much (or too deep) failure is a bad thing?

Yesterday I was talking to a friend of mine who decided to pass on a job at one startup for a job at another. Each startup, both in very different worlds, appear to have the same chance of success or failure.

When asked why he said (in essence): The startup he selected appeared to be more stable. That the road to success was clearer, and therefore, less of a roller coaster ride.

Fair enough.

What I found interesting was that his decision wasnt driven by the technology he would work with, or the investors, or the space, or the CEO (well, maybe a bit), but because he had “failed” over the previous few years, and wanted stability and what he felt was a greater chance at success.

He had experienced enough “failure” that it shifted his mindset. He made a decision based partly on a desire to avoid failure rather than embrace it.

Interesting.

In thinking about failure, Ive often counseled that failure is just a point on the path to success. That once you accept failure as an eventuality or that you are “doomed” to failure, it becomes a loss. And given our instinctual desire to avoid losing, we allow it to begin to drive our decision making. We begin to make decisions based on avoiding losing rather than finding success.

But isnt that good?

I dont know. I am currently driving on a canceled license. I have failed to pay for a speeding ticket (I am taking care of it this week!), and when I drive it completely changes how I drive. I am intensely aware of the speed limit. I am on constant lookout for police. I keep thinking to myself, “dont get into an accident, because it would be really, really bad, and you cant run a company from jail.” My entire decision making process has shifted, and the amount of risks I take has dissipated. I drive like my grandma now. Which is probably a good thing…

So whats right?

No idea. I think a bit of fear of failure is a good thing. It helps us drive towards success. I cant think of anything but building the biggest company I can. VCs that passed because they thought my company was not going to be big enough? Ill show you. People that didnt join the company because they felt that success was a hard thing. You will be kicking yourselves one day. The fear of failing continues to live in the back of my mind; but the requirement of success is the pain behind my eyeballs that keeps me driving forward.

Can there be too much failure?

I think so. I think there is a point when a person has been beaten around a bit that they just need to chose the safe route for a bit. Pick a path that allows them to relearn how big a badass they are. To regain their shaken belief in themselves. To realize that failure, even a lot of failure, is just part of the process. Too much failure, followed by the opportunity to take a deep breath and continue pushing towards success is ok. Too much failure and the acceptance that you are a failure is just losing. And thats an end.

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14
Micah June 5th

Failure in the Morning

This morning I woke up and checked my email.

In it was an email from my friend David Cohen entitled “Wow.” Normally, I just delete David’s emails because they are boring nonsense about Techstars, or yet another expression of adulation, but the single word subject made me curious.

David, not the most eloquent person in the world, wrote:

Micah, yet again today you have given me hope in this country’s future. Single-handedly, you provide me inspiration to one day achieve the level of brilliance you have. It is probably no surprise, but I was absolutely floored by your BigOmaha video.

Ok, maybe I paraphrased a bit. (Well, except for the subject. It really did say “Wow,” and in the email, near the bottom, there was a small reference to “some video” he had heard I did.)

David, as he often does, simplified what I was trying to say in my 40 minute long presentation about Failure being a process rather than a destination in a great post which I read this morning. “Micro failures,” great term.

Then as I perused my Twitter stream, parsing out all the wonderful tweets about my awesomeness (like this one, from my friend Rick Turoczy, who writes the SiliconForist blog in Portland, Oregon: “@micah, you moron, I cant believe Twitter hasnt banned you yet for your stupidity.”), I came across a link to a post that Bijan wrote, The Upside of Rejection.

In the post, Bijan recounts his attempts to land a job at a big firm in Boston, and how failing to do so lead him to a life-changing occupation and, eventually, his wife.

Which gets me to what I am writing about. 270 words later. Yeah, I am succinct like that.

When I was a senior in high school, (Independence High School in San Jose, what what!) IBM offered an internship to one person in our district (which was no small district at the time, probably covering 20-30,000 kids I would guess). It was an impressive summer internship. $300 a week, a guaranteed job every summer in between college, ability to work at multiple departments within IBM, and so on.

I applied, certain that I wouldnt get it. I was, by no means, the best student around, never really did a bunch of extracurriculars, nor did I have stellar references. Instead, I resigned myself to being a lifeguard at the local pool, a job I had held throughout high school. Which of course, also meant smoking a ton of weed. (I was in high school, what activity didnt justify smoking a ton of weed? Shoot, at the time, breathing justified smoking a ton of weed.)

Well, I suppose you can see where this is going, and I wasnt selected for the internship.

Initially.

Then I was. Turns out the first person got dropped for some reason, and they were offering it to me. Except there was one caveat. As a requirement of employment, I would have to take a drug test.

This was not good (If, I have lost you, please refer back to the section about smoking a ton of weed, or perhaps you should think about putting the joint down).

I passed on the position, and returned to lifeguarding and smoking a ton of weed.

Often, I think about how my life would be different if I had done the responsible thing and taken the internship (and stopped smoking a ton of weed). Would I have ended up at a hot startup in the Silicon Valley? Would I be a drone at IBM?

Thats the thing about failure (and trust me, deciding to smoke weed over working at IBM is a colossal failure), its ephemeral and there is no promise as to what happens next. Am I proud of my decision? Of course not. But, I also dont look back at that time as the seminal moment in my life. It was a choice I made. It was a path I took. It was really not that big of a deal (except to my mother who is now reading why I never took the job at IBM. I may no longer be welcome in her home).

Which is what both David and Bijan’s posts are about, and even Jason’s BigOmaha talk and post.

It is ok to fail. It is ok to fail often. Its just not ok to focus on failure or accept failure.

Focus on success; let failure come along for the ride. (but give him a seat in the back by the screaming kid.)