In one famous Nike commercial, basketball superstar Michael Jordan says, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
When I see an athlete break world records, or a dancer delivering a brilliant performance, it always looks so easy and effortless. When observing others’ success, you see only the results, which can lead to a variety of assumptions: They have the right genetics. They know the right people. They’re getting extra financial support. They’re more brilliant than I am. They’re just plain lucky.
It’s easy to point out all the reasons some people are so successful—but that’s because we don’t see them in the context of their failures. We rarely learn about the significant challenges and losses they’ve gone through, and we’ll certainly never know all of them. As a culture we’re brainwashed into believing we must never fail, never lose.
But I believe the opposite is true, that in order to really succeed you have to experience failure, sometimes over and over again. After all, we’re human; it’s impossible for us not to fail from time to time. In fact, I’m convinced that the key to success is startlingly simple: Fail fast.
When beginning anything new, whether it’s learning a different sport, getting a business off the ground, or trying your hand at playing the guitar, the first days, months, even years, are bound to be filled with “failures.” But as long as you’re paying attention to these failures and cherishing them as opportunities to grow, you’ll begin to see failing as a positive step—and a necessary one in achieving success.
For example, a while back, before comedian Kevin Hart was starring in blockbuster movies, my brother and I went to see him perform. His stand-up was flawless. On the drive back, we started wondering how he or any comedian could become so polished. When I got home, I watched every Kevin Hart YouTube video I could find, and noticed that some of his jokes definitely weren’t knockouts. It’s not that he wasn’t funny; he just wasn’t consistently funny.
It’s the perfect example of “fail fast,” an old computer programming principle still used by engineers to build successful products. Basically, a “fail fast” system hinges on the immediate reporting of any failure—or any variable that might lead to a failure—as a programmer is writing code. That way, system operators can get out in front of problems as they’re identified, which keeps them from compounding and bringing down entire systems. Similarly, because comedians like Hart are constantly testing new material, the final result is close to perfect. Fortunately, the “fail fast” method can be applied to any profession or endeavor.
Here are three important factors to keep in mind about the "fail fast" method.