Trying to reframe failure | Diversify Your Self Esteem

Diversify Your Self Esteem

Synthesizing ideas from crazy adventures into philosophy, finance, engineering and psychology…

Trying to reframe failure

…is something not really ever said anymore in startupland. It’s an attempt to pacify the latent fear that will stop you from starting. And it’s fair enough.

But the imagined outcome is often worse than the reality.

Failure is not the enemy of success, inaction is. This is not another article glorifying failing… it’s not ok to fail, often you are costing people their time, experience, mental health and relationships… Failing sucks, plain and simple. It always has and it always will.

But the destigmatisation of failure allows you to have less pressure laid on each decision. Which in itself is a good thing.

Failure used to mean death or increased risk of death. Nowadays, it likely means nothing in the big picture of things.

One thing that will kill your momentum, your morale and your startup is ‘nothing’. Doing ‘nothing’ will certainly mean failure.

Lesson this week: Drinking coffee as a comfort food when stressed is a poor strategy.

Failing is definitive. It let’s you make another attempt, fresh.

Inaction halts progress altogether.

Therefore I propose it is more expensive to make no choice than it is to fail. As time is our only truly non-renewable resource.

We prepare for the worst. It is typically better to over-prepare than to under-prepare. There is of course a point of diminishing returns.

The anticipation can be worse than the actual experience — once you’ve jumped off the cliff there is only one way you can go. That in itself is a sort of freedom.

Reptilian Overlords?

Your self-preservation reflex is so deeply embedded into your subconscious, sitting in your ‘lizard brain’, your basal ganglia – where your amygdala lives, that its influence is almost invisible. But being overcome with terror at the prospect of some possibility is its fine work.

It’s just trying to do its job. Keep you alive.

It is just horribly unqualified for its position.

Sort of like if you worked your way up a career ladder just for the company to be bought out and you placed in a new role supporting some new A-players in a business you’re pretty unfamiliar with. It’s similar to your own market, but the players have all changed tactics.

These new bosses (your NeoCortex, doing complex problem solving) like to see your reports, and make decisions based on it but they never acknowledge you.

You are invisible to them, they don’t even know you really make the decisions and they just rationalise how much of the success was their work and how much of the failure was yours.

They make these decisions based on these pseudo-anonymous reports you make and never thank you.

Mismatch of expectations

Our survival instinct is meant to protect us from predators, not to decide if leaving a job to pursue starting a business is a practical decision. Having the luxury of pursuing fulfilment and satiation in life is a new problem. One we’re lucky to have. I often forget that fact and require a framework collapse to be brought back to centre.

Seeing as we over-estimate risk to keep ourselves alive, once the choice is gone we go from a ‘comparing mindset’ to an ‘experience mindset’


“It’s happening, so how do I optimise it”

If we can’t change it, better deal with it right? It’s aimless and baseless hope that incentivises holding on and not deciding. What if, What if, What if!?

Deciding frees us from the paralysis in that instance. The weight can feel lighter, even despite knowing the outcome is going to be bad.

Uncertainty breeds fear, and fear is poison to the mind.

Triggering the amygdala response you might freeze, or fight and even run away. None of which are likely to get you that best outcome.

So good or bad, being sure of it takes the bite out of the dog.

Therefore my suggestion is that we ought to get out of the decision-making stage of the process as quickly as possible each time:

  • Imagine running up a spiral staircase but part of every loop is a stair covered with glue.
  • The longer you stay on that step, the more stuck you become as it dries out.
  • It will quickly tire you out to stay on each gluey step in this infinite staircase making the subsequent step inevitably more exhausting.
  • This Sisyphean thought experiment would suggest that the gluey step should get the least time out of any of the steps. As each iteration slows you down for the next one.

You can rest. But don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re resting by falling prey to decision paralysis (I’ve done this far too many times already). Or even worse, find all the low-hanging fruit type activities to feel like you’re making moves… HUSTLING!

Gotta go fast?

You’ll be all speed and no haste, wasting energy vibrating on the spot. As Seth Godin says, you have to find the hard things and do those. That is what truly differentiates you and what you are doing. The easy stuff anyone can do, and if you can’t find anything hard to do in your path, you’re either lying to yourself or you need a less-trodden path.

There are many, many things that can go wrong. Things that will end your project, your relationship, your life even. It only takes one of them to happen to terminate whatever it is. Any success moves it up a rung but it’ll still inevitably be exposed to such ‘terminating risks’. That never goes away.

Therefore the natural resting state is failure. On a large scale this is Entropy, the heat death of the universe. It is for this reason that ruminating on everything that can go wrong, no matter how improbable, is an effective defence mechanism. And one that only serves to keep us trapped by inaction.

The compounding fear of possible eventualities will hold you back if you let it, and the reality is far more due to randomness than it is due to you.


We tend to attribute successes to our prowess and abilities (using hindsight bias to make sense of random events) and deflect blame for our mistakes. This is called Fundamental Attribution Error.

Every game of Russian Roulette has a winner.

All of this is to build a case: One to implore you to focus on action. In action there is certainty. And any state is better than no state.

To lead people, they must feel secure in their direction. The only real and complete failure is the wasting of precious time. A leader’s main job is to make hard decisions swiftly and as best they can with the information they have. Often you won’t know if you’re right, but that’s why the job isn’t easy.

The only surefire way to ensure it never gets done is to never pick a path.

Not deciding is a decision.

Also published on Medium.

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