Failure is the new Black

This inspiration came from my friend William Tincup.  If you don’t know him, you need to know him, he’s brilliant.  Like my head hurts after talking to him brilliant, in a good way.

He made a comment recently which was just this:

“Failure is the new black.”

Another friend of ours, Jason Seiden, has been saying this for years, in a little different way, with his “Fail Spectacularly” motto.  Either way, you get the point, it’s now ‘in’ to talk about your failures. It’s a really popular and motivating thought process for a lot of people. Basically, it’s alright that you failed, go do it again and eventually you’ll get it right.

Past generations would go to great lengths to hide their failures.  Think about your parents and grand parents, you never heard them talk about things they failed at.  Think back about how your own parents spoke to you. Was failure really an option?  It wasn’t in my household.  We’re Sacketts, and Sacketts are winners, and winners get to do what they want (oh wait, that was me weekly to my own kids!).

I’m just wondering who originally decided that it was alright to fail?

You can’t go anywhere anymore without everyone telling you “Success starts with Failure” or “The Secret to success is failure”.  This comes from the concept of traditional scientific theory.  Have a theory. Test theory. Fail. Try another approach. Fail. Keep trying and eventually you’ll be successful.  Straightforward. Makes sense.  But that really only plays out when you’re testing scientific theories.

Can we agree real life might be a bit different?

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book David and Goliath talks about the concept of failure and what it does to the brightest college students in the world.  His research found that the top 50  PhD students going into schools like Harvard, are all smarter than the smartest kid going into Missouri.  But at the end of their schooling the brightest kid at Missouri is more successful than the number 50 kid at Harvard.  Why is that?  The number 50 kid believes they are a failure because they are not as smart as the 49 kids above them at Harvard. While the kid at Missouri, who wasn’t as bright as all the Harvard kids, became a rock star at Missouri. That success, that confidence, led him/her to more and more success.  Put that same Missouri kid at Harvard and he/she would have failed miserably and may have even dropped out of the program.

Let me give you an example.  Your kid goes up to bat.  Strikes out, which is a failure. Goes up the next time and strikes out.  Goes up again and strikes out. Continues game after game, never hitting, only striking out.  Continued failure will not lead to this kid’s success.  In fact, continued failure will lead to more failure as their confidence is shattered.

The path to success, for most life situations, is not through failure, it’s through success.  Continued little successes that will eventually lead to big successes.

Celebrating failure, like it’s some sort of a success, doesn’t lead to success.  Is it alright to fail?  Of course it is. But should we be celebrating it?  I have children.  I want them to be successful at anything they do.  When they fail, we don’t throw a party.  We talk about where failure leads, what we/they need to do to ensure we don’t fail the next time.  Many times that entails a ton of hard work.  Failures enemy is hard work.

I don’t like that we are getting comfortable as a society with failure.  That failure has become something to celebrate. Something that is now cool.   That we give a trophy to the team that lost every game.  It doesn’t make us better as a society.  It doesn’t make our organizations better.  Failure leads to more failure, not to success.  Here’s hoping ‘Success’ becomes the new black!

18 thoughts on “Failure is the new Black

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  2. You hear this a lot in the start up world, and going through the process of building a product (again), the only place real failure looks sexy is in the movies. Of course we have small failures (that is the point of A/B testing isn’t) along the way, much like striking out in a baseball game, that is just part of the game. It is easy to talk about failure in abstract terms, but when you have to deal with the real repercussions of it, it is a little less sexy than in the movies.

  3. This reminds me of a TED Talk I heard recently about grit. I think grit should be the new black. We fail and try again, fine. But it is those who don’t stop trying, even after 3, 4, or 10 failures, that make them different from the rest. I think it is perseverance we should celebrating. The willingness to make yourself vulnerable to failure when we realize we must do things that are out of our comfort zone. When we have been rejected so many times but just keep, with new ideas and experimenting with new methods. I think all that takes grit, and that I think is worth acknowledging.

  4. I am not sure if you know this, but I recently wrote a post about failure and it was less about getting comfortable with failure and more about saying that there are some things I am not good at…yet. I realized this was necessary when I tried to explain to some friends that I genuinely am not the best speaker I KNOW I can be. They were quick to reassure me, but I don’t need reassurance that I am good speaker when I am quite clearly, NOT ONE. They meant well but it happens all the time. I happen to be a really good writer and also I am good at putting in my extensions. I have practiced both of those things. I am NOT a good speaker, I am NOT a good leader (like 60% of the time) – YET. The other thing that compelled me to write the post was that I always let people know about my marriage and my super awesome company, my adorable kids (and their victories) I tell people about the super good cheese I just ate. I figured it might be time to take a step back and let them know about my ‘not the bestest of times’ — I don’t think it’s the new black, nor do I think it’s as prevalent as last month’s Atlantic seems to ( — it’s just as much a part of life as winning.

    Also this:

    • Mar –

      I liked your post. I like people who have strong self-insight. I think it’s a core competency that most people lack. I do agree with your point, it’s very hard to find folks to who will be honest to us, about our failures, in a way that is helpful and not hurtful.

      I know I suck at writing. Maybe not at the idea part of writing, but at the writing process in general. I had a person recently tell they just couldn’t read me my stuff anymore because they couldn’t get past the errors. I always try and act like I don’t care about the errors, but I do. No one wants to be the idiot that uses the wrong “your”, etc. I’m thankful for people who are willing to point out my failures with positive intent. Those who want me to be better than I am.

      Thanks for the comments – your post was inspiring –


    • It’s the one thing that I like about Malcolm is that he sells an idea. Some of what he is selling is a ‘belief’, not necessarily complete scientific fact, but this idea that maybe we can look at something in a different way. Let’s face it Data can be interpreted an unlimited number of ways. That is mostly what he does — “Here’s how I read this data and what it means to me. If you agree, doesn’t it make sense, then, that this also might be true…” It’s a better way of storytelling.

  5. I’m always suspicious of Malcolm Gladwell research because it’s just. so. easy. and makes me feel too good about myself.

  6. This is true to a point. Research does show that successes can help us learn more – but the real answer is:

    “There’s lots of different types of learning, and when you say learning from mistakes, the question is what is the nature of the mistake,” Miller said.

    “In our study, the situation was a reward versus no reward, success versus the absence of success … but there’s some cases where mistakes can actually lead to very bad negative consequences, like a loss of money, or loss of a scholarship. When the failure actually leads to a negative consequence rather than just the absence of a positive, that might engage learning mechanisms that rely on feedback from that negative consequence, so maybe it’s a different situation,” he said.

    That said – if we never have failure we never really learn what caused success and we have a difficult time adjusting. If you always hit the ball… and then you encounter a pitch you’ve not seen before and it requires you to adjust your swing how would you know how to adjust if you’ve never failed? It would be new and different but all you’ve ever known was succes with the swing you have. Do you delay the swing to hit the curve? Do you move up or back in the batters box to adjust for pitch speed? You don’t know because you’ve never had to try new things because you’ve never failed.

    I think the key is that we shouldn’t look at failure as a point but as a process. Learn from it but not fear it. Allow it but not celebrate it MORE than success.

    Success breeds success until it doesn’t and then how does one who has never failed handle it if they don’t have some foundation for managing failure as part of the growth process?

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