Rules for Risking Failure

I’ve written on failure before, including here and here, asserting there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it. But I was wrong. Failure is a mixed bag. There are times when failure is an acceptable option, and there are times when it is not.

Here are some rules to help you determine when it’s not acceptable to risk failure:

Not When You Can Learn Some Other Way

One of the big benefits of failure is what you can learn from it. But why go through the emotional and practical turmoil of failure when you can learn the same thing some easier way?

For example, many years ago I had an idea for a business that I developed and set in motion. It failed pretty spectacularly. I now realize I could have done some market surveys instead to investigate the viability of the business before I took that risk and lost. Research would have been a faster, easier, and cheaper way to find out my business idea had no chance of success.

In general, when you can find your answer by asking others, by researching, by thought experiments, or even by looking at historical precedents, you can likely avoid the experience of failure and still obtain the knowledge you seek.

Not When You’ve Already Been Around That Block

The benefits of failure are readily available to anyone who goes through it. But those benefits don’t increase or expand with repetition. In most cases, a failure yields all or nearly all its value on the first try.

A different failure could well yield different benefits. But repeating the same failure time after time is not likely to do you any additional good. That’s why it’s smart to watch and listen for the lessons of failure the first time around, then don’t repeat those mistakes.

Edison, of course, famously failed thousands of times before finding the right way to build a light bulb. But each of those efforts was different, resulting in a new failure, not the same failure over and over again.

Note: this repetition of failure is not to be confused with “rehearsal” or “practice.” Trying to develop a winning performance or walk a tightrope takes lots of failures at pretty much the same thing. But this kind of practice is qualitatively different from simply repeating the same efforts that haven’t worked without making adjustments to improve.

Sports is another exception to this multiple-failure rule. No way you’re going to win them all, so multiple failures are baked into the sports experience. That’s tolerable as long as you understand that failing to win can also be part of working toward success. The key is to keep working to perform at your best.

Not When Recovery Is Difficult or Expensive

Failure often makes a mess, and when that mess is difficult or expensive – or impossible – to clean up, then it’s smart to avoid repeating that failure.

For example, SpaceX’s strategy of learning by experimentation that results in blowing up rockets, launch pads, and other equipment makes sense because those failures are cheap in the context of the company’s budget. “Move fast and break things” would be a wrong-headed strategy if each failure put a successful future in jeopardy.

But failure can sometimes have value. One interesting point of view on failure is this: You learn nothing when you’re right. Fortunately, there are some rules that can help you justify accepting the risk of failure, such as:

When There’s No Other Way to Learn

Back to Edison and his light bulb: There was no way – aside from experimenting – for Edison to learn how to build a commercially successful light bulb, other than to try thousands of materials, one at a time. So that’s what he did.

There are plenty of situations, like Edison’s, where talking, reading, and thinking can’t teach you what you want to know. Many of these are instances in which you can legitimately decide to risk failure.

When It’s Cheap and Easy to Try

Again, sometimes there’s little downside to a potential failure. What happens if you drop an egg from a second story window? Can you get a job or complete a sale by making a cold call to someone in a position to say “yes”?

When the worst that can happen is only a “mini-failure” that won’t cause you significant harm or preclude future success, you may decide the risk of failure is entirely acceptable.

When the Risk / Reward Ratio is Compelling

One reason lotteries are so popular is this: the risk of losing a few bucks seems to many people well worth the opportunity to win millions. Statistically, of course, it’s not. But emotionally, it may be.

Something similar goes on with venture capitalists, many of whom have compiled highly successful track records by routinely accepting these kinds of risks. They have a certain willingness to lose money on many of their carefully chosen investments because the rewards of the few that pay off will more than cover their losses, with quite a big profit left over.

You can apply the same calculations to other risk / reward opportunities. When you are sure the potential for loss is small and the potential for gain is large, you may be willing – even eager – to countenance failure.

Of course, following these rules doesn’t guarantee you success. It merely helps you avoid the failures that cost too much, and steers you toward focusing your time and energy on prudent risks that can help you succeed in your work and your life.

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