The Art of Failure

You absolutely know you’re making the wrong decisions and you absolutely know that you have to make a decision and you absolutely know that you probably can’t afford tomorrow.

“When there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.”

Life is defined by failure.

I don’t mean this in the sense that we are all failures, but rather how we react to failing is, in turn, what defines our lives. There are many people who try, fail, and are swallowed up in an endless chasm of gloom and self-pity, stars that burn both briefly and brightly until the inevitable chaos of life snuffs out any chance of a future filled with hope. Every person has a cross to bear and every mind carries the varying scars of existence. Judging a person for failing to rise from the ashes is impossible, because each situation is so unique that it can only be judged by the one who lives it. This gift of choice is the defining beauty of life — casting stones at any who have reached a ceiling, failed to break through, and ultimately decided that embracing a limitation is easier than trying to move forward, goes contrary to everything that makes us human.

We celebrate success and shun failure, but both are merely different sides of the same coin. They aren’t endpoints in our journey through life, definitive moments we can point to and say, “This is where I failed. This is where I succeeded.” They are experiences that shape our existence, for good or bad, and trying to pinpoint the mercurial ways each of us are impacted by them is constantly evolving. Failure can breed success, success can breed failure, but both represent progress — you made a choice, executed it, and learned from the process. Too often progress is viewed as something that can only be bred by success, when the reality is progress is simply the act of moving forward, even if that experience means leaving countless terribly-executed ideas strewn in your wake.

Sometimes, you have to embrace failure. Two years ago, I plunged into the world of golf. Whereas other sports are more forgiving, allowing you to rely on smarts and athleticism to carry you through the beginner’s process, golf is the crucible that demands a payment in blood. Every bit of progress is slow and painful — the first time you swing and miss in front of watchful eyes, the tournaments you pay $100 to embarrass yourself in, the countless failed repetitions on the practice green to take your putting stroke from terrible to acceptable — but each failure represents progress, no matter how tiny. Bob Dylan sang, “When you ain’t got nothing you’ve got nothing to lose,” and that mantra couldn’t be more apt in describing this process of progress. Golf, as everything in life, revolves around failure — you try, you fail, and through that baptism of fire, you are born anew.

Through all his years of life, MX CTO Brandon Dewitt has learned many lessons. Some have been incredibly painful, others not so much, but the overarching theme that has helped define his career is simple: you must embrace failure because failure represents progress. You must wrap your arms around it, squeeze it, whisper sweet nothings in its ear, and recognize that the only way to move forward is by jumping straight into the fire.

“When you’re in that phase of net creation, it is tumultuous, it’s a fire and it’s a furnace,” Dewitt said. “You absolutely know you’re making the wrong decisions and you absolutely know that you have to make a decision and you absolutely know that you probably can’t afford tomorrow.”

Before being acquired by MX, Dewitt began learning from the endless cycle of success and failure at MyJibe, a terribly-named startup (his words, not mine) he co-founded in Indianapolis. Sporting the terribly-chosen primary color of brown (his words, not mine), MyJibe offered Dewitt what every early-stage startup offers to founders: the opportunity to fail, and by failing, the opportunity to progress.

“One of the things I have a fascinating interest in is our biological evolution,” Dewitt said. “Imagine Homo erectus or Homo habilis engaging as the first ones to come out of caves, the first ones to organize as a group. So now we have a society. And there was some point in which humanity learned that grouping together as a society is better than being alone. Why? All the people that were alone were eaten. It’s exactly the same thing in startups…You have to say, ‘The reason we are where we are, the reason that we’re the most successful species of all time that we’ve ever known of is because of those that failed before us.’ I have to drop that fear of failure, I have to embrace it as part of my success…Getting eaten is just part of the evolution of success.”

Fear of failure is natural. It is an intrinsic trait that we share as humans — failure is scary because our heart and mind tell us it’s so. Being able to overcome that fear is a tough but necessary step to evolving into a more advanced person, whether at golf, entrepreneurship, or life. Dewitt has learned this lesson during his time at MyJibe, continues to learn from it at MX, and will assuredly learn from it again in the future. The cycle of failing and succeeding never stops, because without it, we would never grow.

“Calling it success or failure is incorrectly looking at the equation,” Dewitt said. “The getting eaten part is actually part of the success. It’s not an endpoint.”

Ultimately, that’s the takeaway. James Poniewozik wrote, “Life is a succession of extended, serial experiences that start with a lot of promise but can always end badly…You can protect yourself from a lot of disappointments by not investing, but you lose a lot too.” Failure brings pain and sorrow and embarrassment, but it also brings growth. It gives you something to learn from, something to build on, something you can cling to in times of crisis and say, “I’ve failed before and risen, I can do it again.” It’s not an endpoint because this life of extended, serial experiences isn’t a roadmap with definitive stops, it’s a free-flowing journey where everything connects abstractly to form the existence of you. In the same way that success plays a role in this shaping, so too does failure.

Fearing failure protects you from disappointment, but it also robs you of progress. Fearing failure prevents you from truly reaching for your dreams — your golf game will never ascend, your startup will never take flight, and you will never know the burning satisfaction that can only come from getting knocked down and getting back up. Life presents a million different lessons, but this one might be the most important. Let failure guide you, and in doing so, the world becomes your oyster.

Published 7/16/2015

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