In recent years, there’s been a growing obsession with failure. The “fail fast, fail often” mentality is polarizing. Many take it at face value and use it to romanticize their own failures. Others reject this as bad advice that’s intended only to soothe us in our shortcomings.
But regardless of where you stand, there remains an important lesson at the core of this mindset. And it’s not about failure, it’s about reach. If you’re willing to risk failure, you’re able to take more chances and reach further beyond your current ability level.
The goal is never failure itself. And that’s what most people get wrong. The goal is extending your reach and accelerating growth. This requires pursuing opportunities where failure is a potential outcome. Progress is difficult to come by when you limit yourself to situations where success and participation trophies are guaranteed outcomes.
Avoiding contests that you’re not capable of winning makes sense in high-stakes situations. You want to eliminate risk and play the odds. But in modern life, success is rarely a matter of life and death. Most decisions aren’t catastrophic or irreversible.
It’s still important to choose the right opportunities where you have a competitive advantage in terms of your natural abilities or interests. But if you want to accelerate growth in these areas, you have to seek out challenges that test your limits and push you to the brink of your ability level.
Aiming 4% beyond your current abilities
Habit expert and best-selling author, James Clear, suggests a good rule of thumb is to aim 4% beyond your current ability level. This is where deliberate practice takes place and you’re able to achieve a state of flow.
Don’t get too hung up on the exact percentage, this is just a system to calculate risk and accelerate growth. If you’re aiming 4% beyond your current ability level, failure is a potential outcome. But it’s not the only available outcome – success is still within reach. This allows you to take advantage of inflection points and make bigger leaps – in your career, your art, or personal qualities you’re focused on improving.
Ramit Sethi, best-selling finance author, has a similar approach where he keeps a tag in Gmail for “failures” and aims to reach four failures each month. But that doesn’t mean he’s taking stupid risks. He’s making calculated moves to extend his reach and give himself a chance. Sethi knows failure is a natural part of growing and trying new things. This mindset is key to the sustained growth of his business, helping him reach 400,000 newsletter subscribers and launch dozens of successful (and failed) products.
Discovering the terrain
Both success and failure offer an equal sense of the terrain. Each reveals what to do more of, less of, and which direction might be worth exploring. When you’re just starting out, the map is obscured with certain parts missing. With each success and each failure, you learn a little more and reveal another piece of the map.
Knowing what not to do can be just as powerful as knowing what to do. If you can avoid repeating small mistakes more than once, and avoid the colossal ones altogether, you can bring the full picture into focus, faster. Reflection on your own experiences, paired with vicarious learning (e.g., books or podcasts), helps commit experience into knowledge, shedding light on new corners of the map.
Learning fast, learning often
The driving force behind this fascination with failure is learning, which leads to growth. “Learn fast, learn often” is a more accurate but less buzzworthy rallying cry. Failure is just a mask that learning wears on occasion.
Learning is what you’re really after. Figuring out what works, what doesn’t, and piecing together your understanding of life. With this you can build momentum in the areas you’ve prioritized.
The “fail fast” mentality is about making calculated efforts to push your limits. But failure itself is not the goal. The goal is to push your limits, extend your reach, and develop yourself. Growth requires putting yourself in challenging situations that test your abilities.
If nothing else, the romanticized advice surrounding failure should serve as a reminder that you’re the one who has to go out and live. Books, podcasts, and articles can provide you with strategies, systems, and kindred souls. But at the end of the day, if you want to grow, you have to test these ideas for yourself, risk failure, and fine-tune your own strategy along the way.