In the 2000s, “Fail Fast” became a mantra at many Silicon Valley companies. Then, in the 2010s, it became a caricature and a cliche. It is definitely an idea that has been misused and misadvertised, and much of the criticism leveled at it is well-deserved.1 But, I’d like to defend the point behind it, and show how it can be a transformative mindset tool when used properly.
The reason that it became a caricature is that it’s easy to misuse or misunderstand. The point of “Fail Fast” is not that failure is good. It’s that when we’re doing something new, we’re inevitably going to miss something. In many cases, the only way to figure out what we missed is to try something—anything!—and see how it works. And, it’s valuable to get that understanding as quickly as possible.
So, the idea behind “Fail Fast” really isn’t about failure at all. It’s about trying things quickly, without being certain whether or not they will work, and then evaluating the results. In other words, it’s about experimentation.
This is one of the most powerful mindset changes that I know of. Used properly, it provides a profound freedom—in our relationships with others, in our work, in our personal lives, in our relationship to ourselves. That is, treat virtually everything in our lives as an experiment.
Why is this so profound of a change? Several reasons. First and maybe most important, it grounds everything I do in the reality that I don’t know what the results of any particular course of action are going to be. I may strongly suspect what will happen, but I don’t know. (This is, of course, just as applicable to my clients as it is to me; I may suspect that a given strategy will have a given result, but I don’t know.)
Also, I’ve found that reframing things as an experiment usually takes the pressure off. I’ve talked about pressure before; the quick summary here is that pressure hurts performance. For example, if I’m meditating because I need to calm down, that enhances my perception that the “results are important and I will be judged on them”, which increases pressure, and decreases the likelihood that I’ll be successful.
Further, framing things as an experiment makes it even clearer that I should be paying attention to the results. For example, I like to cook. When I try a new recipe, the first iteration of it is often not so great. I usually follow the directions precisely the first time, but maybe the directions weren’t clear, or maybe I didn’t understand the technique behind some part of it, or maybe the recipe was designed for someone with different tastes than mine.
Framing it as an experiment also makes it completely fine when the first iteration doesn’t work so well. If I’m paying attention to what I did and what the results were, I can then adjust what I’m doing in the direction of greater success the next time.
This ties in strongly with the ideas of persistence and repetition that I’ve written about before. One common mistake with treating things as an experiment is to declare success or failure too early. In fact, if we’re really treating everything as an experiment, there is no success or failure as such; there’s just continued accumulation of knowledge and understanding about how things work.
For example, my wife and I love Indian food. We used to go to a restaurant that had these little dishes of bhel puri2 that we loved. One day, I was in an Indian grocery store and saw bhel puri kits, so I bought one and we started experimenting. After a few tries, we figured out how to cook it so that we liked it.
Then, one day, I decided that we should try it with sweet potatoes instead of regular potatoes. After a few tries, we both decided that we liked it much better with sweet potatoes. So, we did that for a few years.
In the past couple of years, we’ve been making it more, and have made several more fundamental changes to the recipe: more vegetables, more spices, buying the ingredients separately instead of in a kit, changing the proportions of the ingredients. And, it keeps getting better. Would someone from India recognize what we do as “bhel puri”? Maybe, but maybe not. And, that’s okay. We’ve found something that works for us.
And, here’s the thing: This doesn’t just apply to cooking—not even close. Meetings with your boss not going well? Experiment with changing the agenda, or changing your focus from asking to telling (or vice versa), or rescheduling them. The software you’re using to track your tasks and projects getting in your way? Experiment with a different package, or with using different features of the one you’re using now. Your current self-care routine not working for you? Experiment with the timing, or the format of your meditation, or different kinds of exercise.
Now, I could talk about a process for doing this sort of experimentation in our lives. But, the truth is that the process is fairly simple and not all that interesting: try something, evaluate how it works, try something new based on how the first thing fell short. The details (how long to try for, how to evaluate, what to change when trying something new) are hugely dependent on the context. The much much much more important part of this is the mindset that the things I’m doing are experiments. If I can stay in that mindset, it’s almost impossible to fail.
And, so we come back to the “Fail Fast” mantra, which was never actually about failure at all. It was a catchy and provocative way to suggest trying things to see how they work, and then iterating based on how they did or didn’t. Outside of the business world, it’s a pretty powerful approach to try in our lives.
- Many Silicon Valley veterans have a horror story about a company that professed to believe in failing fast, but where failure was in fact punished. That doesn’t mean that the mantra is a a bad idea, it means that dishonesty and duplicity are bad ideas. ↩
- If you haven’t tried it, I strongly recommend it. I’d describe it as “Indian potato salad mixed with unsweetened Rice Krispies.” ↩