“Fail fast, fail often” is an established mantra in the startup world. When creating a new business, every failed idea — every rejection, every roadblock — puts you one step closer to developing a successful product. In the business world, failure is a learning opportunity.
Launching a startup means knocking on 100 doors, and having 99 slammed in your face. It means throwing your ideas to the wolves for scrutiny, and watching them get picked apart and twisted. It means facing rejection time and time again, and entering the next VC meeting with the same high-spirited level of enthusiasm.
You continue to fail until, eventually, you succeed. Your ideas are validated, you get the investor, and you finally find that sweet spot of product market fit.
The problem is, no one teaches us how to fail.
Psychologically, failure hurts, and unable to express their emotions in the environments were confidence is currency and emotional vulnerability is costly, many entrepreneurs experience depression. According to a recent study by Dr. Michael Freeman, a clinical professor at University of California San Francisco, as many as 30% of entrepreneurs (compared to only 7% of the general population) suffer from depression.
How you deal with failure is the biggest determination of whether or not you will succeed as an entrepreneur — and plays a pivotal role in promoting your personal well-being. Here is a step-by-step guide to handling rejection, designed to help you get the insights you need for your startup to succeed.
Step 1: Embrace failure in all areas of your life
First, it’s essential that you separate the act of failing, from the idea of being a failure. Seek out — or be mindful of — small instances of failure in your daily life, relationships, or work. This repeated exposure will desensitize you to failure. It’s called systematic desensitization, and it’s a behavior therapy used to help overcome anxiety and phobia disorders.
“By confronting your fear, and by repeatedly doing the thing you fear, the fear eventually disappears,” says author and motivational speaker Brian Tracy in his book, Negotiation.
Small failures in life are inevitable — being late for work, forgetting a friend’s birthday, saying something hurtful to a loved one. But doing “bad things” doesn’t make us “bad people” and there’s no better way to realize that than by seeking out and noting these small failures. According to the theory of systematic desensitization, getting used to small failures will make you less likely to crumble under the big ones.
As vulnerability researcher Brene Brown says in her TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, “If you have no tolerance for failure, you will not create anything new.”
Step 2: Cultivate a growth mindset
Modern psychology identifies a dichotomy between two common mindset patterns — a “fixed” vs. “growth” mindset. Those with a fixed mindset tend to avoid failure at all costs, assuming that intelligence and creative ability are static givens. They measure success against a given standard and may use it as a way to maintain a sense of superiority over others.
People with a growth mindset see failure not as evidence of inferiority, but as a means for growth. They treat failure as a reason to stretch existing abilities until they reach success.
Obviously a growth mindset is preferable for entrepreneurs who are existing in the “fail fast” world we live in today. However, switching from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset can be tough. Dr. Carol S. Dweck, one of the the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation and a professor at Stanford University, suggests starting by recognizing how to hear your “fixed mindset voice.” Then, make a choice to interpret them with either a fixed mindset or growth mindset perspective and answer your internal fixed mindset voice with a growth mindset voice. Finally, take the growth mindset action.
Consciously practice this approach until it becomes habit and the constant failures of the startup world will feel like progress instead of roadblocks.
Step 3: Share the burden
We’re all know the myth of the hero entrepreneur — the Elon Musk type who goes it alone and builds a tech empire. It’s a great story, right? Except, in reality, he didn’t do it alone. No man or woman can build an empire completely on their own. It takes a strong team, a lot of know-how, and way more work than any one person can undertake on their own.
Leo Lapore, founder of the TWiT network, says that his biggest mistake was trying to do everything himself.
“As a founder I felt like I knew everything I needed to know about media, content, even the technology involved to reach my audience. And I did. I just didn’t know anything at all about making a viable business: finance, marketing, advertising, and human resources,” Lapore says on the Buffer blog. “Hiring a business partner then giving her full scope to do her job felt a little like giving up my company but it was a vital step toward success.”
Though we might be trained to idolize the singular champion, there’s not a single startup that was built by one person alone. It’s always a team effort, which means that both successes and failures are never yours alone. Put aside that hero mentality, and share the burden of failure with your team. You’ll find that it not only makes your burden lighter, but also builds a sense of camaraderie that will carry you through the toughest times.
Step 4: Separate the emotion from the lesson
When you’re still deep in the disappointment of a failed venture, it’s hard to focus on the next step: What you can change in order to do better next time? Take the sting out of rejection by viewing it as a learning experience and by trying your best to remove emotion from the equation. While it can be tempting to wallow, when you wallow in self-doubt for too long, you default to inaction.
“You must make a decision that you are going to move on,” Joel Osteen says in his book Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential. “It won’t happen automatically. You will have to rise up and say, ‘I don’t care how hard this is, I don’t care how disappointed I am, I’m not going to let this get the best of me. I’m moving on with my life.’”
Feeling upset at the initial blow is natural, and it’s okay to own that. However, it’s important to switch over from a dialogue of internal criticism to one of external action if you want to catch your momentum again. Momentum breeds momentum, and you can’t start on the upswing until you take the first step towards renewed action. The best way to do that is to accept that things didn’t go your way this time, refocus on the goal, take some time to bat around improvement strategies, and put them into action, one small step at a time.
Time to fail better
According to Freud’s pleasure principle, everything we do comes down to an instinctual desire for pleasure and an avoidance of pain. Under this premise, the ideas of motivation, fear and failure get a little tangled: The idea of successfully launching a startup brings pleasure, whereas fear of failing brings pain.
As entrepreneurs, we start out hugely motivated, swept up in a wave of possibilities. But when the going gets tough and we find ourselves coming up against obstacles again and again, a sinking feeling of failure ad infinitum slowly takes over, paralyzing us.
Therefore, finding actionable ways to turn the inevitable failures that come with the territory into opportunities for development is your best bet for ensuring success for your business.
Winston Churchill once said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
So continue. Fail fast. Fail often. And you’ll find that you fail better.
Benjamin Earl Evans is an award-winning designer from London, England. He uses Design thinking to help startups create more inclusive products and services.
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