Failure is Like Education: It’s What You Do After That Matters

Failure is a lot like education, and success is often a complicated mess. Let's take a second to unpack success a bit. I say that it's a complicated mess because the equation for success looks something like: success = skill + hard work + grit + timing + LUCK. More often than not, the reason something works is a combination of all these things, and the one element that is always hard to tease out is luck. (Stay tuned for a future blog post about the luck element, but if you can't wait, I suggest you take a look at this article by Forbes).

On the other hand, failure is much more concrete. We tried X and it didn’t work. We gave Y a shot and didn’t get the results we hoped for. These events can help you start to separate what works from what doesn’t, and then spend time focusing on the things that do. This sort of trial by fire is, in fact, the best education you can get.

It doesn’t matter where you went to school or what project you worked on- education means almost nothing if you don’t do something with it. Take college, for example- the degree itself doesn’t actually do anything for you unless you use what you learned to step forward. Education only becomes valuable once you take what you've learned and apply it to the world around you. You have to apply for jobs using your degree, but once you find a job, the real work starts over. Then it’s time to take that learned information, combined with the new opportunity, and go forward to achieve success, which is obviously the ultimate goal!

Failure is similar. When it comes to the startup world, failure represents a situation in your life when you spent a serious amount of time, effort, and resources trying to achieve a goal. If at the end of that experience you didn't achieve that goal, then you have failed. So what now? This is the point where it’s critical to think in terms of an education and identify all the learnings that you've gained from that experience. What was it like trying to build a team, how was it when times were good, how was it when times were bad? What was it like working on product, finding lawyers, talking with investors? The list can go on and on. What worked and what didn’t? What would you have done the same and what would you have done differently? These are the types of questions you should answer for yourself, and use to form the basis for what failure has taught you. Then you can take that learning and use it going forward.

In my personal life, as many of you know, I spent two years running Pyne, a conversation platform focused on empowering people to ask and discuss meaningful questions. We raised money, reached tens of thousands of users, but ultimately wound it down after not hitting essential growth and retention numbers. This was hard and there were many learnings from that experience that I have taken and used to help other entrepreneurs going forward. As an investor, I find that these lessons are incredibly valuable when trying to understand an early stage company and it has provided me a basis to work with founders in a unique way.

As C.S. Lewis eloquently wrote, “Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.” In other words, to succeed, you must try; if you try there’s a chance you'll fail, and through this process you'll find success. That's why you should always make efforts in a meaningful way, making sure to track and measure results so that if an effort doesn't lead to success, you can learn from that experience and improve. I don’t mean to give off the impression that failure is good or something to be praised, just as I don’t think that someone graduating from a particular college is that interesting. What I’m looking for is evidence that a person has learned from a particular experience and that they plan to apply that knowledge towards the next challenge. It’s not about how many times you get knocked down, but rather, it’s about getting up and going forward with knowledge gained and experience to overcome the next challenge.