"The belief that failure is necessary for success, a belief shared among self-made millionaires but not among the middle class, could be the most important finding our survey has uncovered."
Lewis Schiff’s Business Brilliant is a study of the behaviour and psychological differences between self-made millionaires and the middle class. It could be a fluffy book about tenacity and creativity. It’s not. Instead, Business Brilliant offers powerful – and often surprising – insights and best practices that we can all benefit from applying to our lives, whether our goals are financial or otherwise. Schiff dives deep into a number of topics that most of us could brush up on – negotiation skills, delegation, focusing on high-leverage tasks, and goal setting (to name a few) – but perhaps most interesting (and most applicable), was the insights shared on the self-made millionaires beliefs around failure.
The Big Idea
Failure's a Part of the Game
"The notion that you can get rich from one brilliant idea is a commonly held dream that whenever someone actually seems to have done it, the media eagerly embraces the story. Unfortunately, media coverage offers an extremely distorted view of reality."
When polled for the book, 7 out of 10 middle class respondents agreed that perseverance was important to long-term success, but only 2 out of 10 believed that failure was also important.
As Schiff comments in Business Brilliant, “the trouble with this line of thinking is that perseverance can’t exist without failure. Who perseveres in the face of success?”
Think about how broken this logic is. Most of us agree that perseverance is important; a virtue worthy of praise and recognition, but at the same time aren’t willing to embrace the very experience – failure – that allows us to persevere. Perseverance requires failure, yet we’ve demonized the idea of failure, turning it into a four letter word; something ugly, shameful and to avoid at all costs.
If we truly are in the pursuit of greatness – financially or otherwise – we need to reframe our beliefs and views around failure… so let’s explore how to do that.
"…for most middle-class people, failure is something they have experienced either never or just once."
Another fascinating insight from the Business Brilliant research was that while most self-made millionaires fail an average of three times in their professional careers, the rest of us are failing once or not at all.
Seth Godin told a story once about marching a hot-shot Director of his company up in front of the rest of the team and publically asking when that employee had last failed at something professionally. When the individual couldn’t think of anything, Seth challenged him to fail in a big way within the next 6 months… or he could find another job.
Sounds counterintuitive, right? I mean, what person wants to fail? What company or company owner wants their employee to fail at something? Failure is bad, right? Wrong.
Failure borne of ineptitude or laziness is bad. Failure in something we’ve been doing for years is bad. We should know better. But failure in the face of unknown circumstances – failure when we’re trying something new – is almost inevitable. Activities and projects that have a higher degree of risk come with higher rewards. This is basic supply and demand economics: the less people that make it through the gauntlet of challenge, the bigger the reward is on the other side.
If the project you’re considering has little-to-no chance of failure, you really have to ask yourself, “Is this worth doing in the first place?” Is it going to have an impact?
Give yourself permission to fail. Say at the outset, “This might not work.” You remove the pressure to be perfect in the face of unknowns, and it allows you to get down to the matter of creating something exceptional.
Talk it out
"Discussions about failure are almost always more productive than discussions about successes."
No one likes failure. Millionaire or middle class, we’re all human, and we like the wins. That’s normal. But when failure does occur (and it should, from time to time, if you’re involved in work worth doing) the worst thing we can do is brush it under the rug and forget it ever happened. As painful as it might be, we need to learn from the experience so we can do better next time. Failing once at something is healthy. Making the same mistake over and over is foolish. The best way to ensure failure is profitable? Talk it out. Gather the people involved in the project into a room together with enough time to really get into it. Have a clear objective of pulling as much value from the experience as possible (and an equally clear mandate that this is not about placing blame).
I’ve found this exercise so valuable in our own business here at Actionable that we’ve integrated a conversation guide into our ongoing quarterly retreats. I also appreciate that discussing failure is not something we’re naturally inclined to do. Which is maybe why it’s so valuable? What I do know is that it gets easier each time you do it. I know your team grows stronger, more aligned and more open to exploring the unknown together. I know we’re better – personally and professionally – when we can openly discuss our failures and grow through them. I believe the self-made millionaires referenced in Business Brilliant would agree.
There are a number of differences in beliefs, behaviours and attitudes between self-made millionaires and the rest of us, but the line is finer than you may imagine. At the end of the day it seems to me that the most successful among us are willing to take intelligent risks, push through when the going gets tough, and be willing to admit failures and learn from them. And that sounds like something we can all get better at, if we’re willing to step up and live at a bigger level.