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'Failure is not an option... Never give up.' Not in Silicon Valley, mate

Serial failures don't make it big, no matter what rumours say

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Blocks and Files Consider these two things: "Failure is not an option," the famous words of the Apollo 13 mission controller in Houston, and a college speech by a US Navy SEAL commander in which he recommended that people never, ever give up.

Yet Admiral McRaven would say that, wouldn't he – it worked for him. But he appeared to forget that it didn't apply to the vast majority of people who started SEAL training. The attrition rate is 75-80 per cent and so his Never Give Up admonition meant that almost eight people in every 10 were therefore failures, quitters, losers.

Contrast this approach with that of Silicon Valley, where failure is tolerated – nay, recommended – as part of a learning process in business. Throw mud at a wall, Valley lore says, and if it doesn't stick, taking you down with it, change the design, the technology, the process, or whatever, and try again.

USN SEAL lore says don't give up, don't change, just stick with it, whatever it takes, and then give it some more.

Silicon Valley lore says recognise failure fast, withdraw, regroup, redesign, re-apply and toss the remixed mud at the wall again... and then change it once more and toss it again when it fails. Rinse, redesign and repeat.

Only we all know it's not really like that, and definitely not when VCs are looking to gamble on a startup. They don't invest in startups run by serial failures. They don't advise their startup CEOs to recruit serial failures as executives. No, they want a track record of success in everything and so they look for people who have overcome failure, or who have succeeded in their roles despite their businesses crashing and burning.

Both Navy SEAL lore and Silicon Valley lore are unrealistic.

The SEAL commander's admonitions were appropriate to people wanting to fight to the death, but excessive and out of touch for software engineers, entrepreneurs and even venture capitalist partners. They don't throw good money after bad, and being in denial about failure is a bad thing.

Equally, don't believe for a moment that serial failure in Silicon Valley is approved of. Get real. The money follows success and a great characteristic is being able to pick out the good things from failure and build on them. Having a cushion of cash helps too.

Consider Steve Jobs being removed from Apple by former CEO John Sculley and then Jobs' (arguably) subsequent failure with NeXT. The turtle-necked one didn't give up – but he didn't keep on throwing the same mud at the wall. He changed the recipe completely and went on to greatness, albeit being a demanding bastard to work for.

He was a loser who wouldn't accept he was a loser, mixed up some stickier mud and then became a winner.

People who don't have the rounded education provided by early failures end up with an inflated opinion of themselves and possibly unreal expectations of others. I'm a winner – why can't you be one too, you losers?

Failure is not an option? Oh yes it is – but be sure to pick out your successes, stick them on your CV, present them as your track record, and try again. Or, put differently, don't throw the same old mud at the wall and watch it slide down: throw different mud and keep changing your recipe until it does stick.

That's success even if, like Steve Jobs, you're still an unrealistic so-and-so. ®

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