Growing up, I was taught to think willpower was all one needed to succeed. Media, teachers, literature all groomed me to believe success was just around the corner. If I just put in more time, more attention, etc., my wildest dreams would come true.
My own grapple with failure
About eight months ago, my world imploded on itself. A company I had given my all to was not turning into the success I expected. I pushed my team to work harder, I pushed myself to take all external feedback into consideration and I kept pushing. However, I was not as successful as I would’ve hoped. The time I put in didn’t matter one bit.
I failed, which isn’t a huge deal. The scarier thing was I couldn’t pick myself up afterward. The failure changed my personality and it changed the way I felt about myself. I became more nervous and less hungry. I became - and still have traces of being - one insecure punk!
Looking back, I had never had this kind of failure before. In school, if I believed in something and I put the work in, I received the grade. When working on projects or for other companies, I would achieve my goals if I put my attention to it. Hell, most of the time, I was rewarded just for putting time in. That’s how we grow up today. We’re rewarded just for showing up and giving a shit.
So I’d like to propose something crazy. It’s called failure school.
Failure school would be an institution that tested an assumption. That assumption is young brilliant minds are not capable of assessing and overcoming real failure due to a lack of preparation, and because of this they are less likely to pursue innovation again or in a timely manner. So, Failure School prepares students for the recovery.
The paradox of failure school is it cannot, in any way, be about failure. The students who enter the program should not enroll ready to fail. They should apply to failure school in the way they apply to any other incubator program (although I’ll add now that incubators should replace formal undergraduate education so I imagine failure school would replace university). Students will apply with the goal of turning their big idea into both reality and success.
The school would not provide any help or assistance on the actual development of the student’s projects or companies. All resources to improve their projects would exist between the peer network itself - especially as networking is the only value universities have today. The school would only kick in the moment a student was forced to give up. Maybe they simply ran out of money, maybe their idea was proven to be technologically impossible - whatever the case, the student would have to give up in order for the school to educate.
The Failure School Currriculum
All failed students with truly valid failures would be put through the curriculum that consists of (1) peer group “crit” sessions, (2) a thesis on failure documentation, (3) a written manifesto for the next project they will pursue and (4) dedicated exploration time.
The peer group “crit” sessions would be a combination of very diverse student entrepreneurs. Every morning they would explore their many business or project decisions. Each student would divide their project into segments:
- Formation of the idea
- Idea research
- Financial preparation
- Team development
- Team dynamic
- Advisory development
- Success metrics
- Idea production
- Idea release and promotion
- Data analysis and review
- Point of failure
- Point of pivot
- Team dynamic post-perceived failure
Every morning the students would dissect and criticize decisions made at every project segment. The goal of the peer group “crit” sessions is to expose assumptions, hidden mistakes and missed opportunities.
The failure documentation thesis is a personal journey for the student. The thesis gives the student a way to take all of the notes from the peer group “crit” session and reflect. The theses can take on any medium, as long as they answer fundamental questions and more importantly, their thesis can be used as a framework for any student with a similar idea. I imagine they will read like one part case study, one part diary.
The manifesto is a set of core values to be applied to the next project or venture by that student. After heavy reflecting and receiving harsh criticism at every stage, that entrepreneur should have an opinion on how to be better the next time. More importantly, that entrepreneur is seasoned enough to know the kind of culture she wants to create in the future. This manifesto spells out the mission for the next project and gives two to three core values that she will stick with when she’s ready to hop in.
Finally, exploration time. Exploration time is the area where I want to think deeper. Burn-out is so very real for most entrepreneurs. More importantly, it’s so easy to get sucked into thinking linearly about your project or venture when you’re entrenched in the day to day. Exploration time grooms the entrepreneur to spend time exploring new hobbies, new neighborhoods, new ideas to think through perceived obstacles. It’s easier to think through the impossible with a fresh perspective
This could be a super ridiculous idea. All I know is I lost the go-getter, balls-to-the-wall person I used to be and I’m slowly finding her again. I’d love to hack the time it takes to recover from a significant failure. I think an Alcoholics Anonymous for Failure may accomplish this.
Oh yeah…. and Failure School could accomplish building the largest database of failed project documentation ever. Imagine having an idea and being able to check your idea against the database of theses. Within this database, you find a few hundred papers from people who had the same idea, tried it and why they failed. That would amazing!