I love Oprah. I want to be her friend. I want my dog to be her dog’s friend. But she’s wrong.
Speaking to a graduating class at Harvard, Gayle King’s best friend sought to inspire a few brilliant, budding humans with these words of encouragement:
“There is no such thing as failure; failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”
When I read this story, I was immediately reminded of the expression repeated by kind-hearted teachers, instructors and workshop facilitators everywhere: “There are no bad ideas!”
I hate to break it to you, kid, but there are tons of bad ideas. Tons. And we can’t get to a good idea until we mow through all of the shitty ones first.
So, too, it is with failure. Which leads us to today’s four-letter F-word.
At some point between the Vietnam War and Barney & Friends, American society began to disassociate itself from the idea of failure. I’m not suggesting losing was once a cardinal virtue; I just think there has been a deliberate attempt to deemphasize what it means for kids to experience failure.
As a young entrepreneur, I was fortunate to grow up in a home that not only acknowledged failure, we embraced it.
In my early days of launching and managing fledgling start-ups, I was lucky to be surrounded by older, wiser advisors who would teach me how to fail quickly and inexpensively. They would say things like, “Noah, that’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard … if you do this, you’re going to lose your ass.” Every once in a while, they would also say, “Drop everything else you’re working on and make this idea happen.”
At each company I’ve helped, I’ve tried to create a fun and safe environment where talented people have the freedom to screw up. I would create “Best Idea Wins” contests to solve simple and sometimes intractable problems.
Many times, the best ideas came from summer interns like Veronique Valcu. Vero was a sophomore at Penn. Over a six-week internship, she helped us put together an idea that would land our little upstart on the stage of TEDGlobal.
Vero later told me that she was “this” close to accepting an internship in New York where she would have been a glorified coffee girl. You know what the golden rule is for coffee girls and boys? DON’T SCREW UP. The exact opposite of what I’m talking about.
Whether you’re striking out on your own or running a billion-dollar enterprise, don’t rob yourself and your teammates by ignoring the important role failure plays in human progress and development.
I’m reminded of what FDR said while sitting fireside during the darkest days of World War II: “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.”
For entrepreneurs, we need to conquer our fear of looking or sounding stupid. We need to master our fear of being wrong.