A Failure is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Written by: Scott A. Beaulier

Setting the Goal

I was young; I was fit; and this was an “easy” goal for me to bag.

On the day of the race in Gainesville, Florida, a cold front had passed, and a runner’s worst enemy—high winds—made the run more challenging. But, no excuses, right?

I battled the wind (which was a gentle breeze by Fargo standards!) and the typical marathon pain. With just 3 miles to go, the “cushion” I had to qualify was slipping and by Mile 25, I knew I had no margin for error. I turned a final corner and saw my wife—with a look of concern on her face—encouraging me to run faster. But, there was nothing left in me. I crossed the finish line but missed my goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon by 11 seconds. FAIL.

Facing the Failure

25 ideas at Startup Weekend were voted down to 7.

To say I was crushed is an understatement. But disappointment like this can paralyze or it can motivate, making us even better than we were before. This is a lesson I teach and constantly learn from student-entrepreneurs and those in the field.

The question I most enjoy asking budding entrepreneurs, as well as many of my faculty and students, is to describe their worst failure. If they have an answer on the tip of their tongues; if their descriptions lead to both animation and pain in their expressions; and if they can laugh about it, I’ve found someone who “gets” the importance of failure.

Encouraging “fails” in academia isn’t easy—we aren’t big risk takers by nature, and we aren’t exactly going to give all students “Fs” so that they learn a lesson of some kind. Nor are we going to go the route of Peter Thiel and encourage dropping out of school because most of us know higher education has tremendous value.

But, we can at least expose them to failure and innovation by keeping program activities and stories of failure close to our curriculum and close to us physically. Start-up Weekend here at NDSU’s College of Business in early March was a case-in-point. Participants engaged in an intensive weekend of developing their start-up ideas and then pitching them. Not everyone was successful, nor should everyone have been. But, the process of trying appeared to be fun for all, and I bet some of the most spectacular learning occurred for the unsuccessful participants.

Teaching Failure

Startup Weekend facilitator coaching teams in validating ideas.

As an educator, specifically in the field of preparing the next generation of business leaders, I believe failure is an essential topic to cover. First, students need to know that some degree of failure is necessary for progress and innovation. Getting them to understand and accept that is a core lesson of a solid business education. It’s the difference between leading and following.

The second main lesson business programs must cover is, what to do with failure and set-backs. Failure can be a tremendous opportunity, if you know what do with it.

Turning Lemons into Lemonade

Here are a few simple tips to keep in mind as you encounter failure, whatever your entrepreneurial endeavor!

  • Own the failure. In the case of my marathon, I spent weeks blaming the wind and cold weather before finally coming around to a more productive line of reflection that shifted focus away from blaming external factors to asking what I could have done differently and will do differently in the future.
  • “Let it go.” As my daughters often note (thanks to Elsa and Anna), “The past is in the past.” A failure should never become paralyzing. You want the bitter taste to stick around and give you an edge, but you have to let the loss go. Whether it’s facing disappointing sales or getting denied funding for your ground-breaking idea, the wise words of Elsa from Disney’s Frozen— “let it go”—are spot on.
  • Learn from it. Albert Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” When faced with failure, be sure to pause, identify why, and adjust your tactics.
  • Set a new goal. Since the 2007, “Gainesville Massacre,” which is how my wife and I still describe that race, I’ve qualified for the Boston Marathon several times and have run it twice. I’ve also shifted my goal to an even faster marathon target of 3:00 hours. And, in chasing that target, I’ve tasted new failures in that I came up 37 seconds short of running a sub-3:00 marathon three years ago…at least it wasn’t 11 seconds this time!

Failure and the growth that results are the breeding ground for growth, innovation, and movement towards higher goals. Failures challenge us to think beyond what we think is possible. In business, they are the mother of innovation…on the race course, they are the ghosts you are running from that, perhaps, help you run those extra seconds faster…