Why we need to re-define failure

Written by Sol Orwell

One of my pet peeves has been how success/failure is treated as a binary event. You either succeeded or you failed.

This is obviously absurd. Even ignoring that one man’s success is another’s failure, you can have different levels of success (if you think about it, success is the opposite of failure).

How can we do better? Colloquially, we often refer to great returns as a “home run.” So – if we use baseball as an analogy, we can end up with something like this:

ResultHow many (for me)Details
Home run0Examine.com has the potential to be a home run
Triple3Examine.com is one of them
Double5+Sites that sold for $100k+
Single10+Sites that sold for $25k+
Bunt10+Got something, but pretty much a wash
Out15+A good attempt, but realized pretty quickly it was a fail
Strike out3+Ouch. Loss of $50k+
Bench-clearing brawl1$500k+ loss

For me, a home run is a $10,000,000 business. For a venture capitalist, that is likely a double. Each individual is defining success differently.

Beyond even the differences of what one considers success (eg me vs a venture capitalist), the truth is that success is a continuum. It is not a binary event.

Given context of my own bench-clearing brawl (ouch) and my complete lack of home runs, in the binary world, I’d be a failure. Yet here I am, feeling successful. The folly is in imagining your success at an individual level, not of the whole. To measure success, you must measure the whole. To slice it in any other way would be a fallacy of composition or fallacy of division.

How successful you are is a product of the sum of everything, not one or two events.

Success does not occur in a vacuum

My overall success (my batting percentage if we continue with this analogy) is not due to me having one big success after another (hell, I have zero home runs). What has happened is that I’ve hit varying degrees of successes and failures. Some better than others. Some significantly worse. Every successful entrepreneur can attest to this type of continuum. Every successful entrepreneur has had similar highs and lows.

Not to mention, you obviously learn from your mistakes…

The folly of binary thinking: “good” vs “bad” outcomes

If someone strikes out, but then learns something so that they do not strikeout next time – was it a failure? Did they magically go from being a “failure” to a “success?”

With each passing win or loss, much information can be gleaned.

One of my latest projects was AudienceOwl.com (AO). I’ll talk about it more in my next post (consider this part 1), but I had to recently leave it and turned it over to my co-founder.

With a simplistic view, AO was a failure (a bad outcome). And yet it was the engine that helped get Examine.com into the mainstream media (a good outcome).

So which was it? I’d actually chalk up AO as a single – it did not make me any money, but it greatly improved my business (and I promise to expand in the next post).

Shit happens. Don’t take your failure at one thing to mean you are a failure

What you need to learn from all of this…

  1. The definition of success is highly personal.
  2. Success (and thus failure) is not a binary event.
    1. Success is a continuum.
  3. Learn from your failures.

Next up…

So you have a few things to do:

  1. If you’re not signed up for SJO.com, you’re missing out. I frequently muse about entrepreneurship that I never post publicly. It keeps being in the SJO.com Family special. Subscribe below.
  2. Wait until early next week when I talk about why AudienceOwl was a failure for me
  3. Re-think your own failures (and even your successes). And then email me what you came up with (I’d love to know)

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