Falling Forward Is Not a Sex Position, Nor Sexy

Ok, it’s a stretch to make that connection but sex positions have been given odder, sillier names than Falling Forward. The whole sadomasochistic notion that it’s OK to fail is part of the hype and hyperbole that needs kept in perspective too. Somehow pornography fits into this but I need to figure this analogy out still. I’m going to admit upfront that my thoughts on falling forward (or failing forward as it was first called) get a little cynical here, but then I recently sat down with Gregg Fairbrothers – a Dartmouth College grad, founder of the Dartmouth Entrepreneur Network, and serial entrepreneur – who set me straight. First the semi-cynical part, because that’s more fun.

I googled “falling forward” and got 240 million results in .77 seconds. It’s everywhere: business, personal life, pop culture, song names, book names, maybe even sex positions for all I know. Many business gurus, executive coaches, and pundits et al. apparently prefer falling forward rather than failing forward because it doesn’t have that negative connotation of failure. Like that’s not hard to read through so why sugarcoat it? I’m not sure who popularized the concept, but #1 New York Times bestselling author, coach, and speaker John C. Maxwell’s book, Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success, might have had something to do with it. All told, he’s sold like 25 million books.

Want to hear some chapter titles? Here ya go: Get a New Definition of Failure and Success; Take a Risk-There’s No Other Way to Fail Forward; Make Failure Your Best Friend; and It’s What You Do After You Get Back Up that Counts, among other canned doozies. How many times have you heard, “It’s how you respond that counts”? Yeah, I get that. But when you’re staring at the ceiling at 4 a.m. wondering how the hell you’re going to make payroll, Mr. Maxwell’s book of inspirational stories about the likes of such luminaries as cosmetics legend Mary Kay Ash isn’t foremost on my mind. Cosmetics? Exactly!

Mainstream media and talking heads make it sound like it’s ok to fail; in fact, failure is a necessity, a badge of honor, a prerequisite for success. As one pundit wrote, “A credible failure makes an entrepreneur more investable.” Damn, we failures are all worth millions in the future and didn’t even realize it! Pick up the latest entrepreneurial rag or hit The Huffington Post, and you will discover dozens upon dozens of articles that perpetuate this belief that failure is good. Failure is how you earn your stripes. Failure makes you more resilient, more driven. Failure helps you turn weaknesses into strengths. You need to embrace failure, turn failure into success. You need to stand back up, dust yourself off, and try again.

I blame the Chinese. Why? Trade imbalance? Nope. Currency manipulation? Nope. Because there is an oft-quoted ancient Chinese proverb: Failure is the mother of success.

Arguing Failure from Both Sides

It has been argued that if you fail, you have learned what not to do again. However, at the same time you have not learned what is successful. So you could still misfire. This can explain why entrepreneurs pretty much have the same business failure rate the second time around. Now, on the flip side, Gregg Fairbrothers – a pretty savvy guy involved in at least a half dozen successful start ups – argues, “When you succeed you often don’t know why. Often it is pure luck.”[i] What do you learn from that except it’s good to be lucky? Whereas he believes “mistakes are a terrific teacher.”

We have to also acknowledge the importance of failing fast. A great analogy that Fairbrothers makes is that you are indeed inclined to treat your business idea like your baby. You want to coddle and nurture it. But as he points out, “There is no glory in sinking money into an idea that eventually is going to die because of a failing you could have found earlier.” There’s more to failing fast, but that’s for another time.

Fairbrothers takes the long-term view too. “You need an emotions library,” he explained. You need to build the library, be a learning machine, and train yourself. All of your experiences, including failures, add to your library of emotions that you can draw upon moving forward. Nothing is better than experience, in his mind. “The learning curve beats the earning curve,” he quipped. That library ultimately makes you better at playing the risk game, a stronger leader, more self-aware, and gives you an edge for success. All of what Fairbrothers says makes sense. But you can still argue it from both sides.

Here’s the bottom line on failure, in my book. It’s one thing to fail fast with relatively little capital invested, but whole ‘nother thing when you’ve got a decent chunk of change from family and friends that goes up in a puff of smoke. And it doesn’t have to be all that much to hurt you bad. And most likely they can afford to lose it because you told them the risks (right?). It still sucks. Emotionally, you have to prepare yourself for this possibility. At the same time, a failure is not all gloom and doom. When picking up the pieces after a failure, it certainly can accelerate your ability to get back into the game successfully. After all, you’re adding useful knowledge to that library of emotions.

As far as this whole adding to the library thing, failure is a topic we’ll definitely return to from time to time because there are so many ways to dissect it and everyone has an opinion on it. (For example, see the Greg Kotzbauer’s thoughts in the blog “Homeless, Bootstrapping, and Living on the Outer Edge.”) Among other things, he says, “Failure sucks. So set yourself up for little successes. But do it in a balanced way. You don’t want to fool yourself.” Not fooling yourself, keepings in perspective is kind of where we started with this entry, so this is probably a good place to end.

[i] Also see his book From Idea to Success.