7 lessons in trial and failure

Jonathan Hanwit
April 28, 2021

7 lessons in trial and failure

In today’s competitive environment, failure isn’t a word many like to hear. From classrooms to boardrooms, the drive to “succeed” reigns supreme. As an entrepreneur, I’ve learned a thing or two about failure and, as a father, tried to pass on these hard-earned lessons to my children. When the global pandemic first forced my two tween boys to spend much more time at home than they (or I) ever imagined, we brainstormed as a family how they might pass the time beyond copious Call of Duty matches.

Because my oldest son, Elai, loves biking and is mechanically-minded, I encouraged him to start his own bike repair business to meet the growing demand for biking during the pandemic. I figured that it would, at best, keep him busy during quarantine and, at worst, teach him a valuable lesson in failure.

Naming the company “Fixxee,” Elai did his best to get the business off the ground. In addition to spreading the word through our community in Encinitas, he also created a professional website for the venture that rivaled some corporate sites I’ve seen. While several weeks of struggling to find customers left Elai feeling discouraged, I told him to keep his head up. In the early days of thinkPARALLAX, I faced similar struggles.

And then something neither of us expected happened — a local bike shop caught wind of Elai’s efforts and extended a job offer, which he gladly accepted. While Fixxee might not have worked out as Elai had hoped, he learned from trial and failure. And, if you ask me, having your first company be acquired by a direct competitor at the age of 15? Not too shabby.

Elai’s experience made me reflect on my own failures and successes over the past two decades of working with my co-founder to grow thinkPARALLAX from a garage-based operation to a leading ESG strategy and communications agency working with world-class clients like Snap, Cox Enterprises, Southwest Airlines, and Qualcomm.

It has been a journey, to say the least. Here are seven lessons I’ve learned about failure along the way.

1. Failure is a friend, not a foe

We tend to fear what we don’t understand. I’d wager this is why so many are afraid of failure. When you approach failure with a strong growth mindset — trying new things, failing, learning, and improving the next go-around, then failure starts to resemble a frenemy, if not a friend. Had Elai never tried to start Fixxee, he might still be at home playing video games instead of doing what he loves — fixing bikes. Had my co-founder and I never taken a chance on the idea that was thinkPARALLAX — I don’t know where we’d be today.

While some 90 percent of startups fail, 100 percent of businesses fail which are never pursued in the first place — and there’s no telling where those failures will take you. When failure becomes your friend, anything is possible.

2. Think before you act

Mindless trial-and-error is not what I’m advocating for. Approach everything you do as a scientist would: create a hypothesis, do your research, launch the experiment, and collect and analyze the data. Whether it’s a new business pitch, a program idea, or some other venture, do your homework so that you take calculated risks with high confidence. At thinkPARALLAX, for example, when we develop a pitch for a new client project, we do our research, establish success criteria, and put together an approach we think will be the most likely to win. As is common in new business pitches in a competitive space, we often fail to win the contract. But we solicit feedback from the client and do our best to improve next time.

3. Be transparent about your wins and losses

Few like to talk about personal failure. As highly social creatures, it’s almost as important for us humans to be “seen” as successful as it is to actually be successful — and this often comes at the expense of a growth mindset. I often see this with companies we encounter in the world of environmental, social, and governance (ESG). Some companies are afraid to embrace transparency out of fear that they will be “seen” as not sustainable. Tell me which company you’d have more respect for: that which hides its mistakes and deficiencies, or that which is open about its shortcomings and is actively working on improving?

4. Know when to quit

Like Elai’s bike business, some things just aren’t meant to be. When pursuing something new, knowing when to quit is as important as trying in the first place. Establish time-based goals for your project or venture to measure progress and evaluate how to move forward. Rather than let things drag on, sometimes it’s best to cut your losses and focus your time and attention elsewhere.

5. Feel the pain of failure

Even if you’ve managed to make failure into a friend, it still stings when things don’t work out the way you had hoped. Rejection isn’t always personal, but failure is about as personal as it gets. Failing in something you poured your heart and soul into can feel a lot like losing a loved one or romantic rejection. Allow yourself time to process the negative feelings — but don’t bask in it. Negative energy begets even more negative energy. Once you’ve absorbed the failure, switch to scientist mode and do a post-mortem on what went wrong and how you can learn from it. And trust me, the wins feel all the more sweeter once you’ve felt the pain of losing.

6. You have to start somewhere

Many would-be entrepreneurs never get their ideas off the ground because they overthink them. There is no time like the present, and sometimes you just have to press “go” even when you don’t feel fully prepared. Last year, I spent time at a leadership retreat with entrepreneur and world environmentalist Paul Hawken, who said to “start small, local, and cheap.” What this means is to not overthink things, and just do it. Test out your idea even if you don’t feel it’s ready to see if it resonates, and then recalibrate as you move.

7. Savor the little victories

Even the apex predators in the animal kingdom fail most of the time. Lions, for example, only succeed in catching their prey 25 percent of the time. What this means is that even the most successful people or organizations may experience failure most of the time. One of the best ways to keep yourself motivated during your failures is to allow yourself to appreciate the wins — no matter how small. Slow down, take a deep breath and revel in the little victories when you can.

Learning how to make failure into a friend will separate you from the masses who continue to fear it. As you think about your hopes, aspirations, and goals — personally and professionally — remember that trying something new or different is in and of itself a win. Just as my son Elai learned, approaching everything you do with a growth mindset will lead you places you never expected to go.

7 lessons in trial and failure
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