Kevin ClarkUX Director, Shopify

Failure is like learning to ride a bike

I’m currently reading Creativity Inc. and this passage about different ways to deal with failures resonated with me:

Left to their own devices, most people don’t want to fail. But Andrew Stanton isn’t most people. As I’ve mentioned, he’s known around Pixar for repeating the phrases “fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.” He thinks of failure like learning to ride a bike; it isn’t conceivable that you would learn to do this without making mistakes—without topling over a few times. “Get a bike that’s as low to the ground as you can find, put on elbow and knee pads so you’re not afraid of falling and go,” he says. If you apply this mindset to eveything new you attempt, you can begin to subvert the negative conotation associated with making mistakes.

All successful people have failed many times before succeeding. Instagram started off as a Foursquare knockoff. Airbnb got 7 rejections from prominent investors before going on to become the success that it is today. The list goes on an on… It’s safe to assume that you’re not going to get everything right on the first try. You’ll have to fail a bunch of times before being able to make something great. So you want to get all your failures out of the way as soon as possible.

But there’s another important aspect to failing: how you fail. Smaller experiments reduce the cost of failure. What is the least amount of time you can spend on something before knowing if it’s a failure or not? How can you get the bike to be as low as possible so that you don’t hurt yourself when you fall? Can you get back up quickly after a failure?

What if we incorporated these questions into the things we choose to work on? What if instead of trying to write a better blog post than the one before, you decided to force yourself to write something every day and publish it? Not only would you fail more often, but you’d learn a lot more about what works and what doesn’t. The stakes are much lower too, so getting back to writing the next day won’t be as hard.

When starting a project, we often talk about what success looks like. It might be interesting to also look at how the project could fail and what are the things we want to learn from it.