Lately it seems everywhere I look there’s some enthusiastic looking ad or marketing chap grinning in a magazine and telling me how awesome failure can be. How you learn so much. Did you know that the great Michael Jordan missed a whole bunch of the shots he took? He did! So… therefore failure is great and somehow inevitably leads to great success at some point.

OR, you could just suck at what you keep failing at and maybe you should give it up and try something else. They never entertain that possibility.

Failure is painful.

I hear.


I have failed miserably on numerous occasions. And it sucked every time. And I didn’t really learn anything except not to do THAT again. And completely avoid failure ever again. A lesson I’d already learned years before. Which isn’t really learning. Learning is exploring completely new and strange and exciting things. And new and strange and exciting things are usually not failures. Everybody loves them and gathers around you and your idea like moths around a flame.

When people talk about the liberation of the freedom to fail, they lose me. Failure sucks. It’s an inevitable part of life. But so are lots of things. Like dying for instance.

I kind of get what they’re saying though. I think they what they really mean is be open to the POSSIBILITY of failure. Complete and utter disastrous failure. Failure that’s so strange that it’s a victory of sorts.
Eddie the Eagle failure. Sinclair C5 failure. De Lorean failure. Now that’s failure on a big scale! That’s big thinking headed in the wrong direction. But it’s still big thinking. and that’s the important thing! That’s failure you can be proud of.

My fear is that what’s being encouraged here is mere mediocre failure. That’s what bothers me about the whole fail=win! crowd. That they are encouraging people to FAIL SMALL.

I once worked for a guy who embodied the of failing big. His name is Bill Heater. Bill used to say that he liked to approach things from “the wrong” angle. which was a brilliant way to look at things. took me years to figure out why. it made life more interesting for all concerned.

Among other notable things, Bill created the famous/infamous “rocks and trees” INFINITI car launch campaign from Nissan here in the USA in 1990. Rather than show this new car from Japan, he opted for showing waves crashing on beaches. and rocks. And trees. Zen videos. A voiceover (Bill’s voice) quietly recited haikus about japanese design philosophy. A logo flashed briefly at the end.

The campaign drove America nuts. HOW DARE THEY NOT SHOW THIS NEW CAR??? It became part of the cultural conversation in a very car-centric culture. When do we get to see the car? Why are you doing this? Why are you being so perverse? People got really angry about it.

Consequently there were lines around the dealers when the INFINITI cars finally arrived. People were dying to finally see the car!

Yet somehow this brilliant campaign was derided as being a failure.

That’s the kind of failure I can dig.

WC FIELDS: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No point in making an idiot of yourself.


  1. I’d prefer rampant, never-ending, first-time success. Imagine if, instead of embracing failure (© W&K) you never had to because you were just so darn good at things straight out of the blocks.

    That sounds nice.

    Embrace success.

  2. Your topic here is one of massive discussion in the US in all levels of culture. From the work place to schools. Its a fact that expensive private schools inflate grades to no end because it looks better. And damn if that kid not showing up to class with the rich daddy is going to get hurt when it comes to applying for grad school. The last President embodied failure. He lived failure. And he was rewarded for it.

    Then of course if the dodge ball controversy. Preys on the weak! But is any sport different? And trust me I am sure there is an inverse relationship between dodge ball success and future earnings later in life. So maybe this is a reverse psychology scam to help the bully side?

    BTW I had no idea about the infiniti launch history. Thank you. Sounds awesome. Might of been during the 8 years I didn’t have cable and thus no TV. I chose high speed DSL over cable due to my budget.

  3. I don’t think the point is to encourage failure but rather suppress the fear of failure. Push the envelope. Nudge the boundaries. For some reason Walt Disney springs to mind. Plus, as per your Infiniti reference. Sometimes failure is in the eye of the beholder. And Howie, that launch happened long before there was anything like DSL.

  4. ben, i’m with you. mindblowing success 24/7 is the preferred state.

    howie, yes i’ve noticed that. and yes GWB was the personification of the coddled lifestyle.

    rob, i’m all for pushing boundaries etc. but for me it’s about success not failure. i am terrified of failure. every time out of the gate. i used to work at a large agency network that talked a lot about the “freedom to fail”. but that’s all it was. talk. i just agree with Alex Bogusky, that you learn a hell of a lot more from success than failure. failure can paralyze. success always emboldens. in my experience anyway.

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  6. the trap with learning from failure is that you start to do things like “winners” do it. especially in our business when you can compare your project with the winning one.
    if not careful, you might jeopardize your style, your voice, your integrity…
    if you do that, you’re a goner. if not, you can actually learn a lot. and that’s not faillure anymore, right?

  7. great point riki. i remember a bleak spell in the late 90s when i couldn’t get anything produced. it was maddening and painful. that was failure. and i learned fuck all from it. would much rather have been enjoying success. and learning from the positivity that is getting shit done and having people react to it.

  8. Excellent post and excellent point. Failing once is enough to ever want to go through it again. Those who push failure on (as you say) a “small scale” are really doing themselves an injustice.

    If more focus was put on recognizing when you are going to fail, the advice would hold a little more credibility.

    The (astonishingly short) book “The Dip” by Seth Godin actually fits in with your point nicely. I’d highly recommend reading it. It’s more of a long blog post than a book but I think it follows on nicely from your point. I also suspect, this is why the book may have been written.

  9. The Dip. Very concise. I’ll read it with dinner.

  10. Thanks for that dave. yes i have read THE DIP. great wee booklet. ;-)

    Sometimes you just have to tough it out and simply punch your way through. But sometimes you have to simply stop and plot a new course. But the goal has to be success. Because success is fun!

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