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Success Requires Failure, So Just Start

Think about the last time you were at the beach, and gazed out to the point where the lake or sea meets the sky. The horizon, off in the distance, seems reachable. But if you jump on a board and start paddling out, the horizon appears just as far off no matter how far you travel. The same is true of the progress we make in life. We move closer to our goals, but each new stage we reach becomes the new normal, and we expand our goals accordingly. Because we create a new mental construct about what success looks like, satisfaction and contentment still seem out of reach, like the horizon. We’re moving ahead, but it doesn’t feel that way.

In moments like this, be it on a board on the lake or in pursuit of personal goals, the only way to appreciate how far you’ve come is to look back not forward. So while the new year is a time to look ahead, it’s also important to look back to learn the lessons of the journey that led you to this point. Over the break we spent some time evaluating the previous 12 months, and here’s what we found.

In 2017, Heather and I failed more than we ever have during a 12 month period. We made assumptions that were unfounded. We ran campaigns that didn’t work. We chased leads that didn’t pan out. We spent time that was not productive. We did all kinds of things that didn’t work last year!

At the same time, in 2017 we succeeded beyond our expectations. We got our new business off the ground. We created lots of products that we’re proud of. We hosted events that gave people real joy, and in the process developed many amazing relationships. We experienced lots of fun adventures as a family. We made progress personally and professionally.

Here’s the most important lesson we learned from all of these experiences: The good things didn’t happen despite the bad ones – they happened because of them. Put another way, 2017 was a reminder that the only way to succeed is to fail.

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. That is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan

No matter what you’re trying to achieve in life, developing a tolerance for failure is important for two principal reasons. First, if you fail it means you tried. And you can’t win without trying. The only way Michael Jordan made lots of shots is because he took lots of shots (and missed a significant percentage of them). Second, failing provides important feedback that can be applied when you try again…and win. Success is a byproduct of failure. {tweet that}

The key to failing is not to fail too big or too small. If you push all of your chips in and go big, you’ve got nothing to fall back on if you lose. For most of us, because of financial responsibilities and families, that’s not an option. On the other hand, if you play small ball, you’ll never tap into the important lessons that can only be learned when you stretch beyond your comfort zone.

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” – Robert F. Kennedy

In this sense, failing is a skill to be trained and refined. And as with any skill, practice makes perfect. As bestselling author Seth Godin has said, “I think it’s fair to say that I have failed more than most people. And I’m super proud of that. One of the rules of this game is, the person who fails most wins.”

There’s one additional thing to keep in mind about failure: Fail toward a single goal. The problem many of us run into when we’re trying to achieve something is that when we fail, we stop, and move on to the next thing. We think we’ve reached the end, and are out of options, so we bounce. But if you bounce, then you don’t get the benefit of the learning process. Instead, stay focused on a single goal, and understand that the path to success is not linear. Treat each failure on the way to achieving the goal as a necessary stepping stone in the journey. Stay focused. Keep moving.

“Failure is the opportunity to begin again, only more intelligently.” – Henry Ford

So here’s a simple suggestion for 2018.

When it comes to pursuing what you want, Just Start. If failure is a prerequisite to success, what’s stopping you? When it comes to making a decision, or making progress on a new initiative, I’ve learned that I can hem and haw, research and read, ponder and probe all I want. It doesn’t matter. It will just lead me back to the same point. Regardless of any other thing I decide to do, which is almost always a thinly disguised form of procrastination I just need to start. Starting brings with it a risk of failure. But that’s okay, because failure or not, starting is the essential first step toward success.