You're reading Sentences, etc., a design and development blog by Justin Michael.


A lot of people have the wrong idea about failure. Failing is how everyone learns. Failure is part of the process, yet failure has a ton of stigma surrounding it because we live in societies and cultures that celebrate success. The more outlandish and exceptional the success the more attention it gets. You don’t usually see hard-working people who slowly built their business over the course of a decade on TV, for example. We live in a hit-driven culture, surrounded by hit-driven media, so the mundane mechanics of how life actually works are hidden from view.

I used to fear failure, but over time I’ve come to fear something else entirely: stagnation. I realized that if you’re not failing, you’re not trying. And if you’re not trying, you’re stagnating. No one gets things right the first time unless they have a ton of luck on their side. A ton.

Sometimes I’ll write some code, run it, and it’ll appear to work flawlessly. That scares the crap out of me. It freaks me right out that I didn’t fail the first time. I would rather see an error, or have it spit out something wrong, or get some other failure condition that I could diagnose rather than see a piece of freshly-authored code seemingly run correctly the first time.

Why? Because writing code is difficult. Most things worth doing are difficult (which does not mean they can’t be enjoyable). If I write some code and it appears correct right out of the gate that makes me think there’s something really, horribly wrong with it in the most insidious way. Like pretty much anything else, code needs more than a single pass to get it right.

Writers don’t write a paragraph and call it done. They write something, they read it, they refine it, they tweak. Sentences get thrown out, parts get rewritten, and sometimes the entire paragraph is trashed and they start again.

So was the original paragraph a failure? You can certainly look at it that way, but it’s a required failure. You can’t skip ahead to the good paragraph, you have to go through the process to get there. You have to iterate. You have to start with failure.

This concept is hard for many to grasp, because people want shortcuts to exist. They think there are ways to skip all the failures and jump right to the success. There isn’t. It doesn’t matter how good you are, how much experience you have, or what you’re doing; failure is a part of your process. Some fail more than others, but failure and iteration are integral to making things, period.

I understand fearing failure. No one likes to fail, at least at first. Failure feels bad. You want to do better. You want to be better. Failure is frustrating, embarrassing, and eats up time and resources.

But here’s the thing: Failure is incredibly valuable. Each failure teaches us something new. Each mistake is a lesson. Each error is one step closer to greater understanding. Proficiency is the product of repeated failure. It’s dangerous to look at each failure in isolation, you have to look at them as part of a whole, as part of your process.

Failure is not a dirty word. As I said, everyone fails, but we live in a culture that tucks all those failures under the rug and keeps them out of sight. We, as a society, have shunned a critical, non-negotiable part of the creative process. We only talk about and celebrate wild, outlandish success, giving us all a view of both the world and ourselves that is ridiculously out of balance.

Some people don’t expect failure. That’s a dangerous, arrogant, and toxic viewpoint. Failure is as important to the process as success. Hell, it’s more important. Everyone, every single person, has failed a lot more than they’ve succeeded. Everyone. Yes, that famous singer. Yes, that painter. Yes, that author. Yes, that podcaster. Yes, that movie star.

Successes are beautiful, bright flags atop mountains of failure. You have to climb the mountain before you can plant that flag.

So if you fear failure, don’t. Disliking failure is natural, but remind yourself that failing itself is natural. You’re not going to find some magic shortcut to success, you’re not going to make some incredible breakthrough that somehow elevates you to some magic plane that’s above failing. No one has ever done that, and no one ever will. What you are going to do is fail, a lot, before you succeed.

Making things is messy. Failing is part of the mess. The ones who create, the ones you succeed, are the ones who have figured out how to handle the mess that is their process. The mess is annoying, the mess is troublesome, the mess is uncomfortable, the mess is an eyesore, and the mess is a hundred other negative things, but it’s also the biggest positive there is. If there’s a mess, you’re making progress. If there’s a mess, things are happening. If there’s a mess, you’re building something to plant a flag on.