“Winners are not afraid of losing. But losers are. Failure is part of the process of success. People who avoid failure also avoid success.” —Robert T. Kiyosaki, Rich Dad Poor Dad
We live in an era of the hustle, where success comes to those who want it the most and sleep the least. But while much has been written about the cult of busyness or the oppressive scam of the gig economy—and innovative, synergistic business lingo has become a punchline in and of itself—one particular ethos of the CEO/Hustle mindset remains unshakable: The lionization of making mistakes.
“Done is better than perfect,” you may spot in the Instagram bio of the CEO-in-training you once knew. “Move fast and break things,” you may read in the email signature of the consultant who showed up at your office to teach “sprints.” For the past few years, few success stories have been told without a narrative thread about glamorously fucking things up and coming back stronger, smarter, and more willing to innovate. But this encouragement to run bravely into the arms of failure–to make monumental and seemingly expensive mistakes—is a luxury few enjoy. A flawed update to the bootstraps myth, all wrapped up in a shiny bitcoin-friendly package, that makes my blood boil.
Implied in the glamorization of failure on a large scale is that one has the resources to get back up again and create something bigger and better. In the tech world, where this ethos is particularly popular, only 2.2% of VC dollars were raised by female founders in 2018 and the majority of founders are overwhelmingly white. While the startup world may be designed to embrace and learn from failure, it’s a world that is welcoming to only certain types of folks. Hustle culture is just American capitalism as it has always been. It’s not an absence of fear that helps some bounce back from failure, it’s all the small, untold ways other people and systems have helped some rise to the top.
I should share that I hate the idea of personal epic failure. Raising money from my loved ones and scattered internet strangers for a project that never takes off or getting up in front of a crowd of VC investors to convince them that yes, I am smart, and yes, this idea is special, is my nightmare. (Actual, literal, stress nightmares I have had.)
While I’m on a path to be more understanding and patient when it comes to mistakes, mine and others, I have no interest in going out on the kind of wild limb that modern business culture wants to sell me as the key to success. For a long time, I thought that meant I wasn’t ambitious enough or wasn’t hungry enough, or that I was prioritizing safety so I didn’t deserve the spoils of the brave. But I’ve come to realize that what I value isn’t fear or playing it safe, it’s competence.
Innovation can’t happen without reliable competence. It’s built on the work of many people doing their jobs well time and time again. The making and breaking of culture thrives on the kind of people who show up and put in the time with care and consideration. Not everyone wants to be a CEO or a groundbreaking innovator, some people want to take pride in doing what they need to do well—and then just going home. Maybe the knowledge that you’ve never crafted a bullshit mission statement is a mark of personal success. Of course, there are good parts of the failure-as-progress mindset: emotional resilience, expanding one’s boundaries, knowing what to go after. I just take umbrage with the idea that those who are reticent to fail fast and often, in business and in life, are hiding from some greater destiny. It’s exhausting to feel that by refusing to risk it all, I’m missing out. And so what was once a rallying cry to embrace failure has become yet another source of guilt.
Which is why I want to offer an alternative approach: There’s no shame in wanting success with minimal damage, in seeking a path that is largely straight but veers toward the things you and you alone find important. I hope that the person in your office who shows up to do what’s asked of them and remains pleasant and chips in on an extra project every once in a while gets their time on the TEDTalk (or at least TEDX) stage. Not that they would want that, and therein lies the problem.
After all, what’s so special about mistakes anyway? There are plenty of other ways to learn, to grow, to figure out quietly and patiently that things aren’t for you, like taking a class, reading a book on something new, volunteering on a different side of town. Success comes in many forms. Perhaps the antidote to disappearing work-life balance and millennial burnout is to celebrate the more mundane aspects of work and life. So if you’re out there, incredibly reliable person who takes great care to not mess things up, the most manageable of Ted Talks for you: Thank you. You’re doing all right.