back to article 'Failure is not an option... Never give up.' Not in Silicon Valley, mate

Consider these two things: "Failure is not an option," the famous words of the Apollo 13 mission controller in Houston, and a college speech by a US Navy SEAL commander in which he recommended that people never, ever give up. Yet Admiral McRaven would say that, wouldn't he – it worked for him. But he appeared to forget that it …

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'Be Lucky'

Frankly there's some skill and a shit-tonne of luck behind many 'leaders' - but they never attribute their luck to luck, so have to create folklore about not being quitters etc.

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Re: 'Be Lucky'

This is essentially the basis for the modern media driven society. If CEO's have to have the magic touch, how about politicians? Partisan politics demands that everything my team does is good and the opposition does is fundamentally flawed. Lottery corporations(!) depend upon the "dream" to dazzle the mathematically inept. Musicians are great, until their not ; you might spend 10 years in the basement and make it big (like Oasis), but then you might not and we'll never hear of you.

Of course, the entire pharmaceutical/scientific journal industry (sic) is based upon only publishing positive results, and dressing up dumb luck as skill. Ben Goldacre's book has some really eye-watering examples. Viagra is famous for it. I am sure you all can think of some in your respective fields.

The again, we can blame biology for this. Evolution (and the markets) only cares about the winners, whatever human contrived dogmas might like to fantasize.

P.

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Re: 'Be Lucky'

Leaders also never take the credit for work and ideas of their subordinates.

Honest.

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Re: 'Be Lucky'

The good player is always lucky.

Former world chess champion, Capablanca.

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Re: 'Be Lucky'

A good leader gives credit for the work to subordinates to make them feel warm and fuzzy, but pockets the reward.

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PJI

Re: 'Be Lucky'

Napoleon is said to have said something like:

"I have plenty of clever generals but just give me a lucky one" and "I would rather have a general who was lucky than one who was good. ".

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Anonymous Coward

IOW, it's pretty much luck if you've got what it takes. Thing is, many people can't tell if they've got it until they go all in. And when you go all in, there are only two outcomes: usually pre-determined before you bet but impossible to perceive until you do. Either you have what it takes and you get carried to greatness, or it was never meant to be (meaning you run into the paradox of trying to resolve Failure is Not an Option with Failure is the ONLY Option). IOW, life ruled against you. Sorry, you lose. Better luck next life.

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"The SEAL commander's admonitions were appropriate to people wanting to fight to the death"

But not to people wanting to win a war. You need to learn from your mistakes and try something different. Other top tips include "don't go bankrupt" and "keep your staff on your side".

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In a way those other tips were also in the SEAL Commander's speech. Out of his ten points two were "keep moving forward" and "be resourceful and innovative" which combined could be thought of as "don't go bankrupt" and instead of "keep your staff on your side" he said to "find the right people to help you" which is a slightly different take on the same theme. In all, I thought it a good speech but I liked the "You're not special" speech from Wellesley High School a year or two back a little better.

With that said, "failure" and "quit" are words that are both lauded and reviled at the same time. Seriously, am I a failure because I quit smoking? Let's toss in another idiom while we're here - 'timing is everything' or as Carl Lewis put it "life is about timing". Combine the three and we get something more realistic that says failure is not knowing when to quit. At some point it all comes down to spin, as Edison said: "I have not failed. I've just found 10000 ways that won't work."

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I dont really agree with the general gist of this article. You can fail a hundred times but if you suddenly have a great idea, it is still a great idea and you will still make it. If you don't however you will just fail the 101st time, there is no saying when a great idea will come, it may never come. But there is one thing that is always true, if you never try, you will definitely never succeed.

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Yeah, this is not a great article or comparative analysis. Maybe the author was on a deadline. Maybe it was a side effect of something fun. Most of the worst things I've ever put out were created when I was in a hurry to get to fun stuff, or trying to ignore stuff that was fun the night before but may not have been such a great idea.

At any rate, the guy who kind of mentored me in business was a decorated Marine Colonel and he used to really dislike comparing military and business mindsets. He'd say (paraphrasing here) 'in business you can do whatever suits you and it's not going to kill you. If you're tired of charging the same hill just go around it or say fuck it do something else, you're still going to be alive to try something else. A soldier doesn't have the same options, he and his fellow soldiers and maybe even their friends and family will die if they don't win'. My favorite was 'if you can't seperate combat and warfare you've got no business with either'. He was a very grounded dude.

As for the rest, failure and failure aren't equal. Failure never occurs in a vacuum and is never the doing of a single person or variable. If you look at a failed business and see nothing but the failure you're missing the entire point. That point is to learn what works and what doesn't. Different ways to manage risk. Discover previously hidden gaps in a market and fill them.

My company is a good example of that last bit. We are as far away from the mission I founded the company on that it puzzles people how we got to where we are. I was fortunate and had the resources to redirect the operation, but lots of startups don't have that luxury. In trying to fulfill the original mission you'll stumble across something, but you can't split your focus. So you keep on plugging away but if it doesn't work out you've got something to go back to the VC's with and take another shot and have experience on your side. That experience is huge.

Obviously, investing in someone (that's what you're always investing in, not the tech/idea, but the person/people) who didn't pull it off last time is done on a case by case basis, but the VC group I'm with doesn't turn away anyone simply because a previous investment didn't work out. The reasons the previous venture didn't work out and what the company principals learned are all that matter.

The money invested in a project that didn't pan out is gone. Just gone, there's no getting it back and there's no point in crying about it. There's also no point in changing your risk management policies. If you're in the VC world and you go trying to avoid big risks you're playing the wrong game. There are rarely any 'sound investments' that VC groups invest it. Everything is a long shot and the only reason they're seeking money from a VC firm is that no other institutions or investors are willing to take the risks. If you're going to go out on a limb you want to go as far out as possible. If that includes reinvesting in someone that's just a part of it.

Failure to succeed is not failure if you learn things that can help you succeed the next time.

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Anonymous Coward

Thing is, many only have ONE shot. This means they have no capacity to learn; if they win, there's no lesson to learn; if they lose, they have no "next time" to apply the lesson.

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@ Don Jefe

You've said what I came to say much more eloquently than I was going to. Nothing to add really--yes, the article is pretty terrible. It would have been better to give it to someone who has some kind of business experience behind him, you don't need to be a Silicon Valley start-up to know that failure in business *is* fine (painful, but fine) as long as you learn from it and do better next time.

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"Thing is, many only have ONE shot. This means they have no capacity to learn; if they win, there's no lesson to learn; if they lose, they have no "next time" to apply the lesson."

This is the more common reality. Contrary to popular myth, there is rarely a second chance. Most people are lucky to be able to get back to where they started within their remaining lifetime.

The lesson I've learned? Stack the hell out of the deck and tell anyone who isn't directly helping to go piss up a rope. Forcefully if needed.

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"Not a great article ...

... or comparative analysis. Maybe the author was on a deadline. Maybe it was a side effect of something fun." -- Don Jefe

As is often the case with El Reg, the real insight sometimes has to wait until the comments, not the least your own. I shall bear the words of your mentor in mind when I come accross 'militarized' corporate-speak, as I have always found it quite jarring.

What fascinates me is what determines when a company can change tack, and do it successfully - I guess I'm thinking of cases like Nokia moving into mobile telecomms (and, it seems, your own company) - and when it results in a fatal split of focus. Even when a split is avoided the new direction may still end up with the company sliding into irrelevance and eventual failure. Is it mainly the foresight of those steering the organisation, or is it their luck?

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Regarding 'One Shot'

Sometimes a person really does get just 'one shot' at fame and fortune, but that's not the rule. I would like to expand on that a bit though. There are two primary points:

- The first: Your 'one shot' in business is very, very much like the first person you ever really loved. Sometimes that works out just peachy for everybody, but most of the time it doesn't work out. After you eventually realize you aren't actually going to die from despair and/or humiliation you go try again. But you do it with someone different and you incorporate what you learned the last time.

Business is the same. You acknowledge your past errors and you treat it like a difficult, but positive learning experience. You don't blame yourself of anyone else for what happened. Now you know better what to look for. Nobody wants to hear about your last love or your last business, that's all in the past and business is 100% about the future. Mistakes were made, mistakes will be made in the future, but they'll be different mistakes. Don't overvalue the experience, because that'll fuck you over later; as I'm about to illustrate.

- The second: This big issue ties in with the first, but it's a big enough issue to warrant its own point. It's quite rare for someone to ever truly have just one shot, unless their previous shot actually killed them. What's far more common is that a combination of self-doubt and overly conservative risk management objectivity caused by ignoring the lessons of the past prevent people from either recognizing or even acknowledging future opportunities.

Gratuitously stupid and/or supervillain criminality aside, if you stay out of the past, then others will too. There are very few businesses that one person can actually manage to success on their own. You've got to have others involved but you will not find those people if you're looking backward or being too scared to move. Nobody who is looking forward is going to help you either, they don't need an anchor slowing them down. But if you're looking forward you not only find people willing to help, you'll find people who want to help.

The person not looking to the past is the one who will most likely meet those requirements and if you're ready to look only towards the future then you've got as many shots as you want at a big win. If that's not happening for someone the best place to look for the problem is in a mirror. 'Nobody' gets just one chance but you've got to recognize it, act on it and realize it. YOU get to decide how many opportunities you get.

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Re: Regarding 'One Shot'

> You don't blame yourself

Well, maybe you don't. I do go like: "What an anus! What a female genitalia!! I can't believe I was so copulating stupid!!!"

Then I feel much more relaxed and move on. :-)

Spot on the rest of it. Very well written too. Have you considered contributing the odd piece to The Register? Or perhaps you already do elsewhere?

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Steve Jobs was different at that point

Once you've had a huge success (and Apple was a huge success, before becoming a hulking failure, before becoming a humongous success) you can have a number of modest failures before falling out of favour.

When you're starting out you need to show a much clearer record of achievement (or be a tremendous showman) or your first financial failure can kill you for VCs.

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Re: Steve Jobs was different at that point

Steve Jobs once said it only took him 10 years to become an overnight success.

The reality is that, unlike this article seems to think, most successful entrepreneurs have a long history of slogging before they achieve success.

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Whoever wrote this article has no idea what he is talking about....

I've done a bunch of startups myself, did strategy/turnaround work for over 50 other venture backed startups (including some very well known companies), I think I have a pretty good idea about what happens in SV....

1. VCs don't like to invest in 'new' people. Having 2-3 previous startups, even if they were failures, makes it much more likely you'll get money

2. Everyone in venture-backed startup land knows that 9 out of 10 startups will fail. The odds are stacked against anyone doing a startup.

3. Failure is not a black mark. 60% of the startups I did failed, yet VCs are knocking down my door to invest in my latest venture.

Team, relationships, experience, ability to execute are way more important to investors than how many failures you've had. And perseverance may be the highest regarded trait of all. You need that in spades to make any startup a success.

Sure, having success helps, but SV is a VERY small world and everyone knows who is capable and who is just blowing smoke.

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Re: Whoever wrote this article has no idea what he is talking about....

So much self-serving egotism in this comment I don't even know where to start.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Whoever wrote this article has no idea what he is talking about....

> So much self-serving egotism in this comment I don't even know where to start.

Self-serving egotism would have been to keep his thoughts for himself and let this (hideous indeed) article stand unchallenged.

What do YOU have to contribute, my dear chap?

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@ckm5 Re: Whoever wrote this article has no idea what he is talking about....

That's pure hogwash mate.

And its piss poor logic.

Did you ever consider that the initial idea for your start up wasn't good enough to be viable?

Had a guy I worked with who left his startup to join another company. Asked him if his startup was so successful, why did he leave? (Note I said leave, not cash out. Bit of a difference there...)

The point is that unless you can show your start up is viable, then its not going to be worth the effort.

Oh and yeah, you can point to Facebook, however... I would suggest you first look at AOL.. ;-)

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Anonymous Coward

Failure Is An Option

If you are the writer of this stupid article.

"appropriate to people wanting to fight to the death" What a bloody stupid thing to say. He no doubt thinks it's all blood lust and death or glory. Ignorant buffoon.

A complete lack of understanding and knowledge of history and fact.

A successful military does not train or expect its members to fight to the death. An example of someone who, like the writer assumed this is what soldiers are expected to do to win, was Adolf Hitler.

Gen. George Patton said it best,

“I want you to remember, that no poor dumb bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it, by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

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Re: Failure Is An Option

> Gen. George Patton said it best,

I can't find a credible reference pointing to him as the originator of this saying. It is, however, in the British and other Commonwealth armies ("The idea is not to die for your country, but for the enemy to die for his").

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Joke

Failure is not an option

It's standard equipment on this model.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Failure is not an option

> It's standard equipment on this model.

Well played, Sir. :)

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Chance favors the prepared mind. Do the homework first, acquire what knowledge can be acquired, then when luck comes calling, it is easier to recognize and run with it.

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I've always said you don't learn by doing things right, you learn by doing things wrong. Where doing things wrong involves drastic consequences (like dying), you learn by doing things wrong in a controlled environment. The failure-is-not-an-option bullshit comes from the astronaughts losing in their simulators again and again, under different conditions. Their training is based entirely around losing. And when you've lost under every condition you could possibly think of, it only leaves winning on your average trip. Well, most of the time anyway...

I treat those-who-have-never-failed (and sell it) with suspicion, because if you only ever draw from your good luck bag, and never from your bad luck bag, sooner or later you're going to run out of good luck. At this point you're no different from anyone else - except - you have no idea how to deal with, cope and recover from that really long bad luck streak. The rest of us mere mortal humans are used to it, pull up our socks, pull our fingers out, and get on with it. And this is more important in the long run regardless what the fat suits think.

Or you can take the Mythbusters stance of "failure is aways an option"... 13+ seasons of getting it "wrong". They must be doing something right.

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@John

So if you know something is a bad idea, you'll do it anyway just for the experience?

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Very intersting comments and much appreciated

Whilst Im clearly not as work wise as many commentards Ill add a few addendum's of my own

Learn from the past don't live in it

Failure isnt the end it just shows you not to take that path again

Having good people around you breeds success.

The "team work" ethos of [continually] helping others just breeds laziness in their work ethic and does nothing for your moral [see anchor above]

If your going to make changes for the betterment of the company don't keep on people who will drag the rest down.

Trust is not part of the wage plan its something to be earned by positive actions.

Don't mange like Sir Alan Sugar unless your prepared to pay the same rewards to your employees

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Ssteve Jobs Graduation Speech At Stanford 2005

Steve Jobs gave a speech to the Stanford Class of 2005 http://news.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html

Like Steve himself the speech had good and bad parts. I think the good part were how he opened up and told the students of his humble beginnings. How getting fired at Apple was the best thing that ever happened to him. He spoke of the constant need for change and Death being the greatest inovator of life.

What I did not care for is that no where did he thank anyone or acknolwedge anybody helping him with advise or money (Remember the third forgotten man of Apple - Ron Wayne).

"Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish." - Steves closing quote (He cited as being from The Whole Earth Catalog)

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Basic Arithmetic suggests...Failure is a likelihood

To paraphrase Richard Feynman there may well be "Lot's of room at the bottom", but there is a small and fixed amount of room at the top.

The number of possible successful start-ups is limited by the size of potential markets, even if those markets haven't been created yet they will still have a finite maximum size.

The self help gurus and seminar organisers are basically just pyramid selling a fraudulent dream. The military guys, for whom I have great respect, approach most problems with a shit or bust attitude. Their selection and training develops individuals with a high degrees of focus and self sacrifice. Unfortunately this shows up in their personal lives with high levels of relationship breakdown.

It is possible to succeed and I would never dissuade anyone from trying, but be realistic and have a plan B, maybe in something where success isn't measured in market presence or balance sheets

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