The Cult of Failure: How screwing everything up became the new ideal, and why that may not be a good thing

The Cult of Failure: How screwing everything up became the new ideal, and why that may not be a good thing

03_pic_by_agnes_cecile-d6oxtosI’ve been noticing a trend for awhile. I’ve commented on it before.

At first it was subtle. It began with the explosion of “Lifestyle Businesses” – a few guys quit their jobs and told everybody else, “Hey, you guys should quit your jobs too, it’s awesome!” They set themselves up as “Lifestyle Coaches” or wrote books or offered services or started businesses.

Soon the pyramid scheme expanded with more and more people leaping without a parachute: Excited to jump into the unknown with only their faith in possibility and opportunity and the belief that the universe always provides a soft landing.

And why not? With very little job security, starting your own thing and creating your own value is a smart move. I’ve done it a few times.

The difference, I believe, is that this wave of young entrepreneurs believes in The Myth of Passion.

The Myth of Passion

It began in the 1970’s with books like “What Color is Your Parachute?”

It’s the idea that we all have a calling – that we can find what we love to do and somebody will pay us for it.

Today it’s the backbone of most people under 30 (and many over thirty, although I think we’ve learned some healthy cynicism and skepticism).

A few of the titles on the popular new blogging platform Medium say it all:

Quit Your Job. Change Your Life. Be Happy.

By following your heart and your passion, most people believe, you’ll somehow become an entrepreneur: that is, you’ll figure out a way to make it work, and generate income.

All you have to do is get out of your own way — and leap like a child once again. If you can dream it, you can achieve it.

The illusion is that you can quit your job anytime you want and be successful and happy.

And that’s kind of true… when you abandon everything, you no longer have to be tied down to rent or car payments or stagnant relationships. Starting over and moving abroad can be refreshing. And empowering. And then you try to find a way to support your new lifestyle… so you write about how awesome it is to quit your job and move abroad… and the cycle continues.

Some people do find a way to make money. But there are also many startups and small businesses and bloggers who fail.

Sometimes they fail BIG.

And so the myth evolved.

It’s not enough anymore to believe and leap and be enthusiastic. The new, cutting-edge thought paradigm is The Cult of Failure.

All these people who quit their jobs are joining startups and hooking angel investors and pitching big ideas. Some may make millions of dollars. Many will fail to gain traction. Very few require any real talent or skill.

We all know the 10,000 hour rule, but we also know that skill level is rarely rewarded these days. There is no value in skill – because anybody can learn it, and it can usually be outsourced to somebody in a cheaper country.

As Seth Godin writes in The Icarus Deception:

High-quality work is no longer scarce. Competence is no longer scarce, either. We have too many good choices—there’s an abundance of things to buy and people to hire.

It takes too much time to develop skills; and all skills can earn you is a money-for-your-time trade, which is never as lucrative as a scalable business.

And the big money is in the fast idea.

To be a successful entrepreneur, you have to make a lot of stuff. And you’ve got to finish. And you’ve got to get out of your comfort zone. And you’re probably going to screw up. A lot.

And it’s frustrating. So The Cult of Failure developed its own inspiring, life-affirming quotes.

You’ve probably heard them around:

“Real Artists Ship.”

“If you’re not failing, your goals aren’t big enough.”

“If you’re not embarrassed by your product, you waited too long to launch.”

The Cult of Failure encourages you to take on more than you can chew – to do things you aren’t capable of and figure things out on the way.

The Cult of Failure wants you to do something badly rather than wait until it’s good enough.

On the one hand, I have a lot to learn from this new way of thinking. I should get out of my comfort zone (for example, to learn Chinese I need to speak it badly for a few years before I get good at it.)

But the other side of the coin is that a lot of people are actively avoiding becoming good at anything.

They rate success by how many failed projects they have behind them.

They start big things and outsource most of the work.

The only thing they learn how to do is to develop, outsource and sell a big idea. (Which makes them “serial entrepreneurs”… a term I’ve long hated, for it suggests pride in failing multiple times).

What about Quality?

The reason I can’t fully get on board The Cult of Failure, is that I actually want to make nice things that have real benefit.

I’m not going to launch a half-assed product that doesn’t help people. I’m going to put in the extra time to make it functional, useful and awesome. I’m not going to put up a skimpy ebook or a bunch of insightful but ultimately empty blog posts to drive people to buy my services or products.

If I’m going to do anything, I want to do it right. I want it to be the best.

This will probably make me much slower to launch. I’m probably “doing it wrong” and I won’t make as much money.

I might not sell a business off for a million-dollar paycheck (although I’ll certainly try, dammit, and I have some pretty brilliant ideas about that).

I’m not saying that The Cult of Failure adherents are anti-quality: I’m sure they believe in making awesome and useful things too. But, they often aren’t interested in investing the time to develop the skills. And a lot of them – though gifted writers – are pretty young and inexperienced. (Brash, optimistic, enthusiastic, relentlessly positive and over-confident… they remind me of myself 10 years ago.)

So I don’t mean this to be a negative criticism; only a lesson in observation from an outlier – someone on the edge, balanced on the fence, of the Cult of Failure.

There’s also a curious divide between entrepreneurs, who are mostly starting Software-as-service companies or website or smartphone apps, and artists and authors, who (in theory at least) can also build scalable businesses around reproducible products, but for whom quality is everything: without quality books and art, you won’t gain loyal fans.

Should you be open to failing, and able to pick yourself up again and again? Absolutely. Should you be intent on failing? Absolutely not. Give 110% to everything you do, and try your hardest to make it successful. If you fail, don’t just start over again with something new. Learn what you did to screw it up, and make sure you develop the right skills or know-how so it doesn’t happen when you try again.


The amazing art at the top is by AgnesCecile of DeviantArt.

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