Failure: We're Doing It All Wrong

05/29/2015 12:55 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2016

When we interpret failure as a lack of success or an inability, we're doing it wrong. Many of the world's most successful people have failed handfuls of times, and they're greater innovators for it, not the opposite.

Michael Jordan, considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time, admits to failing more than most. He's lost nearly 300 games, missed more than 9,000 shots, and admits that his 50 percent shooting average requires him to take two shots for every one time he scores; one to fail, and one to score.

Author Stephen King's first book, a novel about a teenage girl with telekinetic powers, was rejected by 30 publishers. He threw it away, his wife rescued the manuscript from the trash, and Carrie, along with King's writing career, began to boom.

And don't even get me started on Walt Disney, the man who was fired by his newspaper editor because, "he lacked imagination and had no good ideas." In your face, editor McMean.

We Need to Think About Failure Differently

Maria Popova of Brain Pickings recently examined poet and philosopher David Whyte's book Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. She observed that Whyte, "...constructs an alternative dictionary inviting us to befriend words in their most dimensional sense of reawakening to the deeper and often counterintuitive meanings beneath semantic superficialities and grab-bag terms like pain, beauty, and solace." She believes Whyte is suggesting that, "...words, like cards, are as capable of illusion as they are of magic: two sides of the same coin..."

In light of Popova's commentary on Whyte's genius revelations, I challenge us all to shift our thinking about failure - the meaning of the word itself and the forceful way it pushes us toward what's "safe." "Safe" doesn't spur growth, nor does it propel us forward like risk does. We need to let go of our fear of failure.

Embracing Error: An Opportunity For Growth

In Silicon Valley, failure is not failure (as we know it). It's a badge of honor. An entrepreneur's willingness to try several routes before reaching the right approach to a business challenge is what sets entrepreneurs apart from the crowd.

My good friend Mark Ghermezian (tech entrepreneur and investor) and I were recently chatting about this topic. His take? "The unintended consequence of failure can be game-changing innovation." He cites Yahoo, and its shift from search engine to king content producer, as an example of how a competitive disadvantage can be the tipping point that turns something into a greater version of itself.

Kathryn Shulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, comments on the human benefit of failure when she writes, "And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change. Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world."

We need to see failures for what they are: second, third, and fourth chances. Catalysts that force us to think differently. Opportunities to learn and grow.

Don't Let Setbacks Set You Back

My co-conspirator, CEO and Co-founder of AirPR Sharam Fouladgar-Mercer, first tried to raise capital all by his lonesome self without a product and without a team rah-rah-rah-ing behind him. Guess what: It didn't work.

At that point, he could have given up or tried something else. He chose the latter. He decided to build a team, develop a working product he felt passionate about, and then attempted to raise capital again with all his chess pieces in position. Technically, you could have said Sharam failed the first time around, but it wasn't the end of his story. (And the end says so much more about his entrepreneurial spirit than any first-step "failure" can.)

Don't let setbacks stall you. Great entrepreneurs don't fail (or quit), they learn. And each learning is a step on the way to greatness. Find your learnings, and apply them next time around. If you encounter a loss by way of your whole team, have a candid conversation with them about what you've learned collectively. Then talk about how to make sure you don't make that same mistake again.

Know When to Throw In the Towel

As much as I don't condone giving up, there are inevitable points in our careers when shifting focus is advantageous. After you've exhausted all options, don't be shy about throwing in the towel. In other words, don't beat a dead horse if you've already hip-checked it down the hall. Seriously!

The ego can trump us in a big way, forcing us to tune into a single business challenge day after day to no avail. Be self-aware enough to admit shortcomings so you can reap the benefits of learnings from failure. Sure - there's something to be said for such perseverance, but having the courage to know when to throw in the towel and move on is just as, if not more important.

Do What Matters To You & Every Failure Can Be A Success

Google's Head of Advanced Technology and Projects, Regina Dugan, was quoted in Wired recently stating, "It's more important to fail at something that matters than to succeed at something that doesn't."

Are you pursuing something you're so passionate about that the setbacks are worth it?

How have you turned failures into pivot points in your career?

Ask yourself these questions to remind yourself of why you keep trying.

If At First You Don't Succeed...

Clinical psychologist Linda Blair stated in an article about failure in The Guardian that, "If we want to help our children cope better with failure, we need to praise them for how hard they try.".

And with that, I offer this final thought on failure: failures are stepping stones, not dealbreakers.

Which kind of entrepreneur are you?