Today I’m going to write about a principle I came across while watching some old Extra Credits videos. These guys are awesome, honestly. If you haven’t watched any of their things I highly recommend you go and check them out.
In the video they speak about a design principle called Fail Faster. Go watch the video. I’ll wait… You back? Okay so let me speak about the high level idea behind Fail Faster. It is basically to put something out there as fast as you can, even if it’s very raw and get some eyeballs on it. By doing this you will start picking up if and or where your design is flawed and figure out if you can correct course or if you need to restart (this doesn’t only apply to design, but can be applied to a lot of things in life).
Too frequently people hold onto an idea, a program or some code until they believe it to be perfect. Sometimes this is a a good approach, but most of the time it’s a really bad idea. The longer you work on an idea, the more time you invest the less likely you are too see it’s faults and the more it hurts if the idea fails. It’s a natural reaction. We all get attached to things we put a lot of effort into. So which would you rather do, work on an idea for months or even years to see it fail or figure out the issues with your idea at the start and work with both your eyes open? Seems silly to pick the first option when I put it that way, doesn’t it?
Then why is this so difficult to do? I mean it seems so logical. I believe it is rooted in who we go to for the advice. When an idea is raw, when it starts rattling in our heads most of us will think of going to people close to us, our family and friends or maybe trusted colleagues. However, these are also the people in our lives who we really really don’t want to come across as failures to and so we hesitate. Then there is another reason we don’t share, and it might seem a bit counter-intuitive but we don’t share because we are afraid that our idea will be a failure. Like I said it’s pretty counter-intuitive, but here is the catch, there are numerous studies which show that most people will delay confronting a fear (or perceived threat) in the present even if by avoiding the present fear the future fear is larger and more likely to occur. It’s just the way our brains are wired. So don’t beat yourself up if you find that you are afraid to share. It’s your brain trying to “protect” you.
So how did I get over my fear of failure? Well to be honest I haven’t gotten over my fear but as I’ve gotten older I worked out what is important to me and learnt where I can fail and where I can’t fail. I realised that failing at a project does not cause me to fail at what’s important to me. What I do consider a failure however is when I put a lot of time and effort into a project and then it fails because of things that could have been avoided. It also helps that I’m an optimist and I don’t hold idea sacred. I believe that ideas in their raw form are a dime a dozen and I also believe that for every idea I throw out I will be able to get two more, so I have started prioritising my time and not my ideas (which really are a dime a dozen).
This doesn’t mean that I am fearless however even when it comes to getting feedback for my ideas from people. The higher impact the idea could have on my life and the more I look up to the person I’m telling the idea to the more nervous I get. I have developed a few small cheats for this, sometimes I will try the idea out on a random forum, “What do you guys think of combining X and Y?”. It helps that I don’t see ideas as something sacred, you might not believe me but give it a shot, it’s amazing how many times I’ve gotten valuable advice from people speaking from experience. Sometimes it’s also just funny reading what the trolls have to say. However, I wouldn’t recommend it if you believe you have the next iPod on your hands. Another trick that I’ve picked up when I have a huge idea, is break the idea up into smaller segments, smaller cross sections of the entire idea and show different sections to different people. That way you can tailor each section and show it to people who can add the most value to those sections.
Practice, really practice. Practice at failing, don’t let it become a habit though. With each failure you learn valuable things. A lesson I’ve learnt from playing games, and especially on-line PvP style games is that failure is part of the process of getting better. It seems very silly to me now but I remember avoiding playing on-line games not because I didn’t think they were fun but because I was scared of losing to other people. Then one day I realised that if I want to be good at some games I will need to learn to deal with failure. The only way to get better is to practice, and the only way to practice is by playing and when you play you open yourself up to losing. It also helped that I started watching people stream games on-line and I watched famous professional players lose, wipe themselves off, get up and try again. Then I realised that they are no different from me. They only put extra hours into what they love. While I will never be a professional gamer, there are other things that I can put effort into, even if I end up failing a few times at the start. Keep in mind, with each failure you need too look at getting better. I can’t stress this point enough.
Fail Faster will make you better at whatever it is you do. Just keep in mind that you need to learn from your failures, don’t let them define who you are. Sometimes a failure can stay in your mind for a long time if you let it. It can grow and become bigger than it originally was. Don’t let your failures grow on you, don’t let failure become a habit, become stronger after each failure, smarter, faster. You are not your failures. Figure out what works for you and run with it.