The Notion of Failing Faster

At work, we've been revamping a series of tutorial videos. The entire process of revising and producing the videos is often long and tedious, but has been rewarding. Part of the process involves having a coworker review our work before we proceed to the next step. At the beginning of this video overhaul process, I spent extra hours on each video project to get it perfect before the review process. I anguished over every little detail, going through everything again and again in order to get each second of video just right. And then when I felt it was completely flawless, I'd send it on for review.

When I got my reviews back on the first couple of videos, I realized my folly. I spent so much time trying to perfect each video, that I had actually wasted time in the process. My videos weren't perfect. My reviewer still found several things that needed to be fixed or could use some tweaking. It was after I experienced this with a few videos I had a realization. What if I put together the best product I could without agonizing over every minute detail and sent it for review as quickly as possible (while still maintaining a high level of quality, of course)? I tried it out with the next video. And it worked. I spent less time stressing about the little details and focused more on getting the video done, instead of getting it done perfectly. When my review came back, it contained more or less the same amount of feedback. The difference is I shaved at least a couple of hours off of my video production time. The first draft wasn't perfect and I knew it needed review and changing. The big difference was that instead of trying to ship a perfect product, I was simply trying to ship a product.

As a society, I think we generally have a fear of failure and see it as something to avoid. I've learned from my recent video experience, that if we want valuable feedback and improvement, we should learn to fail faster instead of waiting until something is perfect to review progress. Because spoiler alert: it's not perfect and probably never will be. And that's ok.

It's true that you are your harshest critic. But it's also true that almost anything we make or do benefits from external feedback. If anyone has ever written something, played an instrument, created a piece of art, completed a big project at work, or created anything, really, you know that you generally have two feelings about the thing:

It's the first feeling that makes us afraid of failure and the second thing that gives us a reason to fail faster.

As a writer, I strongly relate to both of these feelings. However, during my years in college, I didn't have time to stare at my writing long enough and my writing courses forced me to be vulnerable and collect feedback. I learned to fail faster because I was forced to fail faster with due dates and deadlines for workshops.

However, having finished school, I no longer have deadlines. I can stare at a piece or sit on a piece for as long as I want. But what's the use in that? Sure, it protects my ego and shields my fragile feelings. But I write so that other people can read. And if I wait and wait and wait to hit publish until it's “perfect”, then you, the lovely readers of this blog, will never get to read the words.

The same thing applies to ideas. If I have an idea but think “Oh, that's dumb, that'll never work,” then the idea will never come to fruition. It'll sit in my mind, simmering until it's thrown out or forgotten.

Now, I'm definitely not suggesting that you publish every word that you write or go out and try every idea that pops into your head. And I'm also not talking about the kind of failures like failing to put on a parachute when skydiving or failing to get your driver's license before driving. There are, of course, limitations to this idea of failing faster. However, if you don't learn to fail faster, your ideas, thoughts, stories, art, or project will never see the light of day. And what a tragedy that would be!

Here are a few things I've learned about failing faster from my personal and work experience.

Fail in Front of a Small Audience First

This is probably true for most things, but especially for things that will be public or may affect your professional life in some way. With our video project at work, I could have failed faster by publishing the first draft of my videos and collecting feedback from our users. However, my boss and coworkers would not have been very happy with that plan. It would have diminished the professional quality we strive for and would have been much more difficult to correct my mistakes after receiving feedback.

Instead, fail in front of a smaller audience first. Send your failure to trusted friends or colleagues or family members. People who will be kind yet critical. You don't want only feel-good feedback (like the kind your grandma gave you after your 5th grade piano recital), but you also don't want to get torn to shreds. This is, after all, a failure. It's imperfect and you know it. You're gathering feedback. What's working? What isn't? Should you scrap the whole thing or rework a portion of it? Does it need little adjustments or a major overhaul? These are the questions you need answered when others are evaluating your failure.

Failing in front of a small group is easier on your soul, too. A few people giving you pointers is much easier to deal with than the soul-crushing force of online forums or public performances.

With our video project, my first draft was only reviewed by one other person. The feedback was easy to digest and easy to implement. I trusted them to focus on the important things and recognize that this was a first attempt.

Rethink Failure

Failure has so many negative connotations. But it doesn't have to be that way. Train your mind to think of failures as opportunities to learn (easier said than done, I know). A failure is simply a discovery that something didn't work as expected. Think of it like a science project from middle school. You create a hypothesis, test your theory, and list the results. Sometimes your hypothesis was proven correct, other times it's proven false. However, if your hypothesis was proven false, you probably didn't throw the whole thing out because your theory was a failure. Instead, you wrote in your conclusion why you think it turned out differently and what you learned from the experience.

Why we've failed to translate this beautiful life lesson into adulthood, I'll never know. However, this method is a wonderful way to learn from our mistakes and from our failed attempts. Instead of pushing and pushing until your “final product” is perfect, why not get the first version out for feedback? And then a second? And third? What is your first draft besides a hypothesis about what choices are right for your product? And if your hypothesis was proven wrong, look at your results, figure out how and why the result was different from your expectation, and draw conclusions about how to move forward. Then reflect on what you've learned from the experience and move on to the next experiment in failure.

Learn From Your Mistakes

That brings me on to the next point, learning from our mistakes. Failures are simply experiments that didn't work out as we intended. There's a lot to be learned from our mistakes and failures. Perhaps the thing you learned is that you don't have the bandwidth to deal with this project or habit or piece of writing right now. Or maybe you learned that you are really bad at writing dialog in short stories. Or perhaps you found a gap in your professional skills when your boss asked you to work on a big project at work. Whatever your failure and whatever the lesson learned, the most important thing is that you learned something. And then that you take that something that you learned and work on improving on it so you don't make the same mistakes again and again (though, we're still human, so it's bound to happen at some point).

If your failure leads you to learn and conclude that you just don't have the energy to juggle so many tasks, you've learned something valuable about yourself! You now know your current energy level, you know how much you can handle (or not handle), you know your limits. And now you can work on cutting back or boosting your energy levels (of course, I'd recommend cutting back whenever possible). If you learn that you lack a skill at work, you have the opportunity to seek career growth. You can ask your boss for time to do some professional development, learn from a coworker, or take some courses on your own time if possible.

This is why failing faster is so important. We all will fail at something at some point. But failing faster provides us with these learning and growing opportunities at a more rapid pace.

Continue Improving

If you've ever watched a baby learn to walk, you know there is usually more falling than walking in the early days. But every baby keeps getting back up and tries again and again to walk, falling again and again. When my daughter learned to walk, she fell all the time (she's running now, and she still falls all the time). But she always got back up. And tried again. And fell again. Now she walks like a champ (with the occasional awkward tumble and skinned knees). This same thing can be applied to new habits, learning new skills, working on projects, and doing anything else where failure is a possibility. Fail often and improve often. The more often you fail, the more often you learn something, and the more often you learn something, the more often you can improve yourself.

Remember that your little failures aren't permanent or life-threatening. Continue to learn. Continue to grow. Continue to fail.

This post was heavily inspired by this post from one of my blogging inspirations, Leo Babauta of Zen Habits.