“If you think that’s a big failure, we’re working on much bigger failures right now. I am not kidding. Some of them are going to make the Fire Phone look like a tiny little blip.”
That’s Jeff Bezos after Amazon’s flagship product the Fire Phone absolutely bombed in the market. When I read this line back in 2016, it felt like a gimmick audacious billionaires play to show boldness. But the more I thought about it, and especially after I got a better idea about how Bezos runs Amazon from The Everything Store, I started to understand the deep wisdom hidden in this simple punchline.
You see, when you fail the first time, it’s kind of a big deal. My first business was a total failure. I spent one year on an idea that went nowhere. I didn’t deal with it very well. But the truth is, if you are trying to do something new, you are bound to fail once in a while. The trick is not to stop there, and work towards even bigger failures.
The Airbnb guys did it the best. Airbnb didn’t take off the first time they launched, but they didn’t stop there. They launched over and over again. Every time they failed, they tried again with a different strategy. Now, more than 10 years later, each failure is a blip compared to the massive success they’ve had. Jeff Bezos meant something similar. You have to strive to make your failures insignificant.
But to be honest, most of us aren’t willing to fail. We may understand intellectually that we are bound to fail once in a while if we are trying to do something different, but most of us aren’t ready to take that punch to the gut, the blow to ego, the stigma, and the self-doubt that comes with failure.
Like the Albert King song, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die,” the paradox of success is that everybody wants to be successful, but nobody wants to fail to get there.
But since the path to success isn’t straightforward—with lots of dark alleys and dead ends—failure always lurks just around the corner. Therefore, like the Agents in The Matrix, avoiding failure is impossible.
Take the career path of a comedian. On paper, it’s pretty straightforward. You get up on stage and crack jokes. To really be successful, you have to really be good because there are millions like you—both struggling and established—hence the creative competition is huge. Unless you carve out a niche that only you can have, it would be impossible to stay in any creative game. The safest path to avoid failure would be copying jokes or mimicking what has worked in the past, but it obviously wouldn’t get you anywhere near success either.
Creating new material isn’t easy. Even the best of the best comedians have their fair share of bad days. Jokes that get no laughs and narratives that cannot hold the material together. But the bad jokes are gateways to the good ones. As Linus Pauling said: “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” Similarly, for every kickass joke, there are 1,000 bad ones.
Dilbert creator Scott Adams once wrote: “If you want success, figure out the price, then pay it.” The price of success is failure.
By that logic, failure isn’t simply a silver-lining; it’s nearly a goal. Failure is a signal that you are trying hard. Failure is the indication that you are taking risks necessary to stay creative. Failure is the evidence that you haven’t given up.
The only way to conquer failure is to make it redundant. Take risks, try out new things, do experiments, and work towards much bigger failures. A particular project or a business venture may not work, but it shouldn’t stop you from trying newer things.
I was broke after my first business had failed. I needed some time to recover, but I hadn’t given up. I had quit that particular project, but I didn’t quit on trying new things. I geared up to work towards bigger failures. Since then, I’ve tried multiple things. Most of them haven’t worked, but some of them have.
This is a winning strategy for every creator. Amazon’s failures are small enough not to take the company down, and the company learns from each mistake in ways that amplifies both the frequency and magnitude of its future wins. Similarly, by the time you reach success, you would have made tonnes of failures, so many that they would have become insignificant in the face of success.