How to Talk About Failure in a Way that Doesn’t Make You Look Like a Loser with No Friends

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” but “That’s funny…” —Isaac Asimov

I’m fascinated by how things work. So I’m always making little guesses about how things will work out, based on my theories. In school, we were taught to call these hypotheses because theories are something much more refined, but I’m going with the vernacular.

How to Talk About Failure

So sometimes these theories are backed with data (like my recent foray into reselling textbooks– I was scared silly but the data assured me it would work). Sometimes these theories are mostly based on gut instinct and common sense (e.g. I think people would like to hear me ramble in a weekly email.)

So far, both these theories seem to be working out. But hey, you know what didn’t work out? Google+ (I wanted so badly for it to catch on). Exercising first thing in the morning. E-books on personal finance. The list goes on.

So this is my viewpoint on “failure.” I’m not saying it’s the only right viewpoint, but I get so mad when a client says something like,

“You know, years ago, I had a coach and she told me, “You don’t tell people when you don’t fill a class.” That’s stuck with me all this time.”


YES. I know why people say this. It’s the same reason why people don’t shop at grocery stores that have half-empty shelves. They assume that a prosperous store would have the demand to fill the shelves, and furthermore, if the shelf is half empty, god only knows how long that candy bar has been there. It might not be quite good anymore.

Failure doesn’t have a smell. Desperation does.

I’m not gonna lie, probably some people do think that when they find out you don’t fill your course. But try to take a step back.

Talk about Failure 2

Don’t think of this as a rejection of you. (By the way, this is easier to do when everything is an experiment.) Think of it from their perspective:

Every person out there in the world is wandering around looking for something that’s going to have a meaningful impact on their lives. They are HOPING for something really, really, good to happen. They don’t necessarily know what that will be, but they are open to good things.

Feel empathy for these people. They just want good things to happen to them.

However, like all humans, they are also pain-averse. They want to avoid disappointment. Because trying something, getting our hopes up, and having it not work is just something we avoid on an instinctual level.

When we have a class that didn’t fill– probably that means that we got one or several theories wrong.

Of the MANY possible things that went wrong, “You didn’t seem like a credible risk” is only one, and fairly far down the list, at that. But it is a possibility, and rejection is one failure that tends to scar on a psychic level. Which is why we dearly want to avoid advertising that rejection.

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Saving Face is Easier When You Work From a Mindset of Service and Experimentation

Talk about Failure 3

So you can have a “failed” experiment, and mull it over privately, and never really get very good information on what went wrong. Very likely, you’ll have to either go back to the drawing board and try something entirely new, or run another, slightly tweaked experiment. Both methods are time-consuming and likely to stack up failures. (999 methods that don’t work, amirite?)

Or, you can speak to your audience, individually, or as a whole, and share your thought process.

For instance, with regards to my personal finance guide, I might say:

“I see a lot of people give up on their business, not because their business wasn’t viable, but simply because it couldn’t make enough money to cover their needs before people ran out of resources. So I thought I would share all my techniques from a lifetime of bootstrapping and show you how best to ensure that you survive long enough for your business to succeed. However, I only sold a handful of copies, so clearly I misjudged something. Did I not promote it well enough? Did it not seem relevant to you? Did personal finance advice not seem credible enough coming from me? I have theories, but I’d love to hear what your impression of the product was and what informed your decision about it.”

Is that hard to say? Well, yeah, often. You have to really, really not be feeling sorry for yourself. Because the people who are in your corner will fall over themselves to reassure you, and that is pretty hard to take at any time, and still less when you’re feeling vulnerable.

But if you’re curious and scientifically-minded about it, you’re just gathering information. For instance, probably no one even remembers Crash Course in Money Management because I launched right around Thanksgiving and I probably only sent out three emails. But, I can’t know for sure until I ask. But I can’t ask if it’s taboo.

Why is it taboo to “admit failure?” (And why do we frame is as an admission?)

We’re afraid to let the mask of Perpetual Success slip, in case it dooms our little businesses and drives away the customers we so desperately need. That’s a lot of downside, and any business owner is going to think twice before risking it.

Talk about Failure 4

On the other hand, you need the data.

So how about this? Could you be just a little bit more transparent with what you’re thinking about to your audience? Could you share the tiniest failures, just as a warmup? See what kind of response you get.

Pay attention. When you admit to problems, do people shun you? When you get something wrong, do they ridicule you?

I think you’ll find that they become even more tightly engaged, even more in your corner. Because now they see that you’re human, and that you’re trying hard to serve them.

But you don’t have to believe me. Run your own experiments!