Why failing at your startup isn’t the end of the world

By Jon Westenberg

Everyone fucks up sooner or later – it’s not the end of the world.

I know this sounds like the same advice that entrepreneurs, creatives and freelancers hear every day.

We’re told that we can’t give up. We can never stop trying. Quitting is for the weak. You only truly fail when you walk away. But there’s a reason we repeat this advice.

The reality is, every now and then you are going to fail. Because every now and then, you will reach a point of objective failure, where to continue, to keep trying, to just ‘believe’ would feel like a mistake – and it’s at those points that you cannot give in.

There’s a point where you have to accept that the path you have been on, the product you’ve been building and the profession that has taken centre stage in your dreams are not the right fit.

But that’s not the end of the world.

There is no shame in resetting

I think there’s a real problem with how we view failure. When you’re a multi-billionaire you’re praised for all the times you missed a shot, fucked up and fell through. It’s admirable.

When you’re not yet at that level, when you’re still going through those failures without a glimmer of success and without a big break, it feels like something to be totally ashamed of.

But admitting you’ve failed when you’ve made a decent, thoughtful, carefully balanced call that you need to try a new idea, a new strategy or a new solution – that’s a good thing. It means you won’t waste any more time on a project that is going nowhere.

Throwing in the towel doesn’t mean you’re a loser or you’ve given up on anything. It means you’ve reset your priorities, your workload and your dreams, and you are about to get over it and find a brand new challenge – or a brand new way to take on the old challenge.

There are some problems that cannot be solved

You are going to come up against some moments in your life, both professional and personal, where you can’t win.

No matter how much you believe, how focused you are or how productive you can be, there are always things that cannot be done. Or that simply cannot be done by you.

When you reach these situations being able to identify the futility is incredibly important. Because if you can’t do that you could waste the rest of your life tilting at a windmill and telling everyone it’s a giant – nobody will be fooled.

It might even be that your product is right, you’re right, but the timing is wrong. The company is wrong. The strategy was wrong. Any of those things could mean that you’ve hit a wall, and you need to burn everything and walk away and come back with something new.

You’ve got to be a big enough person to see through your own reality distortion field.

Iteration isn’t losing

When we idolise the failures of billionaire founders and successful artists, we tend to only focus on their iterative process. What we call fuck ups were really tests, hypotheses and early versions of future successes.

I think we’ve reached a misunderstanding of what losing is. It’s not missing your target market, making the wrong product or focusing on a bad solution. Those are all learning opportunities, not the end of the road.

Losing is when you have reached a point at which there is no going forward and no going back.

In fact, losing is when there is nothing left that you can do to save your ass. And you have to walk away. That’s not the same thing as failure.

When you fail, and you can’t see a way out, there could be a chance to make some changes and take another shot. You can make a clean break and start again.

Jon Westenberg is an entrepreneur, startup advisor and writer. You can follow him on Twitter. This piece was originally published on Medium.

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