This Ain’t Middle School

Seth Godin posted on his blog today (which you should totally check out and subscribe to, because it’s one of the best blogs in the world for getting you thinking) the following thoughts on Failure, Success, and Neither:

The math is magical: you can pile up lots of failures and still keep rolling, but you only need one juicy success to build a career.

The killer is the category called ‘neither’. If you spend your days avoiding failure by doing not much worth criticizing, you’ll never have a shot at success. Avoiding the thing that’s easy to survive keeps you from encountering the very thing you’re after.

And yet we market and work and connect and create as if just one failure might be the end of us.

This isn’t entirely your fault. If you went to public school in the US, or a lot of private US schools or public schools in other countries, you spent 12 years learning that it was the number of failures and successes that counted. How are we graded in school? The teacher hands out (say) 20 assignments worth 5 points each. You get one chance to do each assignment, and you either pass or fail. If you pass more than 18 assignments, you get an A. If you pass more than 16, you get a B. If you fail more than 8 assignments, you fail the class. Sucks to be you! There are variations in the number of assignments, different weightings, how well you do on each assignment, and so on, but that’s the concept.

The Real World

Imagine your car breaks down, and you have it towed to the mechanic. You explain the symptoms, hand over the keys, and sit in the waiting room on the plastic chairs pretending you’re interested in Diesel Power magazine. Time goes by, and finally your car pulls around the corner of the building. The mechanic leaves it idling in the parking lot and comes in to give you the keys, and as he hands them over he says, “I’m sorry; I failed to fix your car.”


“Well, I checked the battery, but that wasn’t the problem. And I checked the spark plugs, but they were OK. I tried 19 things before I found the problem, and only one of the things I did worked. That’s a 1/20, or 5%. I definitely failed.”

You see how absurd this system is in the real world? It doesn’t matter how many times you fail — it only matters that you eventually succeed. It doesn’t matter how many touchdowns you fail to make; it matters that you succeed more than the other team. It doesn’t matter how many tries it took you to get that guitar riff right; it matters that you finally did. McDonald’s doesn’t count how many customers don’t buy a Big Mac. It doesn’t matter

The thing is, you know that about your own area of expertise. Mechanics know that trying 20 things still counts as fixing the car; accountants know that the books never come out right on the first try. But because of the way we learned to count “failure”, we tend to assume that other disciplines do count failure that way.

So I’m here to tell you: monetizing yourself is not like middle school. You will not get it right the first time. And that’s OK. There’s no penalty for guessing wrong, or for starting over. You’re even allowed to say “You know, this is kinda cool and is working out OK, but I think it could be even better if I did something else entirely!” Steve Pavlina discusses his journey in self-monetization, starting with shoplifting as a teenager (made use of many of his talents, but had downsides like sitting in jail on Superbowl Sunday wondering if he’d spend the next 2 years there); went back to college and started a computer software business, failed a couple times there before he got the hang of running a business and started making good income; and gave up on computer software entirely and began blogging. All those “failures” doing the “wrong thing”…. is he a failure? A 6-figure income says he isn’t.


This is a big thing to ask, but it makes such a huge difference in how everything else goes. You will have a much easier time with everything I talk about here (and, honestly, everything I don’t talk about here) if you can learn to try something, and treat failure as just an outcome. So see if you can learn to be OK with failure. Take an improv acting class, or join Toastmasters — you’ll fail a few times, but in a context where everyone is OK with that. Or try to go out and fail at one thing every day. Or pick up that new hobby you’ve always wanted to try, and keep telling yourself “This failure is acceptable, and I will now try again.” You’ll know you’re ready when you can look at a failure, throw your arms up in the air, and yell “FAIL!!” with a grin on your face.