Let’s make one thing clear: failure is not good. People try to say, “all great successes start with failure”.
This is not true. Nor is true that Thomas Edison failed 10,000 times before he invented a lightbulb.
Don’t let people indoctrinate you into the faddish cult of failure.
It’s depressing and makes you feel like you can’t get out of bed and nothing is worth it and nothing will ever work again.
Also, failure can kill you. When Phillipe Petit walked on a tight wire between the two buildings of the World Trade Center, he couldn’t afford to fail.
You can pay attention to this post or not. But I hope you do.
I got lucky. After failing so many times I perfected it into an art form. I don’t ever want to fail again. But if I do I hope I follow my own advice.
Bernie Madoff said about his famous hedge fund (I could say “infamous” but why add the two extra letters when we all know it), “First we were doing well, then we didn’t do so well and I was too embarrassed to tell anyone”.
And then his failure compounded.
A mistake turns into a failure turns into a crime turns into murder if you let it compound.
Be honest about mistakes. Even if you are afraid of what people think.
Yes, you will no longer be as smart as they thought you were. Yes, for a small moment you won’t be the spinning top that never falls.
That’s ok. You’re human.
When I had a business and had a bad day I was often afraid to call people and tell them.
If I had a bad meeting where I didn’t land the client (Tupac’s mom. Sony Pictures. JP Morgan. And on and on.) I would be afraid to tell my partners. “I thought you were perfect,” I fantasized they would say.
Honesty is the fastest way to prevent a mistake from turning into a failure.
Honesty is step number one in learning from mistakes. Honesty is the way to rewind a failure into a mistake into a success.
Just like Success = Love + Persistence, Failure = Ego + Persistence. It’s a fear of shouting “Help” when you most need it.
I could also add Luck to both equations. But there’s no need.
Michelangelo once said that a horse was in a block of stone. Now he just needed to carve the horse out of the stone to make a sculpture.
The same with luck. Luck is always that block of stone we start with. But if we learn how to carve, we make the sculpture we set out to make.
“Help” is one of your carving tools. Use it wherever you can. Seek it. Work for it.
Help is a conversation. If one side talks too much, the other side will get bored. So make sure you help back when you can.
In my first business I needed help getting clients. In my second business I needed help raising money. In my third business I needed help building the site. In my fourth business I needed help with… and on and on. Even in this blog no less than five different people help me every day and I hope I can help them back when I can.
When you are at your darkest, your survival will 95% depend on the people you have around you.
Do you trust them? Will they backstab you? Do you feel good when you are around them? Are they actively seeking to improve themselves?
We all have so many examples of this.
I used to try to do deals with these two guys. They always had one deal after another that seemed too good to be true. I always thought, “maybe this time it will work out. All I need is one.”
But that “one” never came. They weren’t good guys and I knew it. I always had hope. Maybe this time. Maybe…
Finally they broke contact with me. I could no longer help them achieve whatever it was they were trying to achieve. Good riddance.
Take a hard look at the people in your life. List them on a piece of paper. A big piece of paper.
DO THIS TRICK: Ask yourself, “when I think of them do I feel good about myself or bad” or “do I feel good about them or bad”. Maybe you only know them for a little while. Get to know them better if you feel good about it.
When I say “ask yourself”, I mean it. Don’t just ask the tiny organ inside your brain that weighs a few ounces and makes most of our decisions. Ask every part of your body.
How does your body feel? Your body has neurons spread throughout it. At some level, even an unconscious level, the body knows the answer and it will definitely tell you.
Be honest with the answer you’re hearing. Say it loud and clear, “I hear that answer!”
Maybe you’ve known them forever and it’s been a struggle. Get rid of them.
This is not to say be cruel. Sometimes people need help. But make sure you are not addicted to rescuing in order to feel good about yourself.
Stay away from bad people. Because the worse you feel about yourself the worse you will fact about yourself.
I have one friend who tries many times and always fails. She says, “I will never get this done”. Ok, I believe her.
I have another friend who says, “this is the best idea ever.” I have nothing really to say to that.
Both friends are wrong. You have to keep trying.
In 1994 I tried my third business and it didn’t work. I said, “that’s it. I’m not really meant to do businesses. And then by 1996 I was trying a business again. And again after that. And again after that.
IF you’re heading in the direction of “never” THEN eventually you will get there.
It’s realistic that most things don’t work out as planned. We are incredibly poor predictors of our future.
I can give you story after story. I can give you my stories. But I like Theresa Ragan’s story here. She was rejected by book publishers for 17 years. I don’t know how many books she wrote. Maybe 20. Who knows?
Then she self-published.
The more gatekeepers you have in the way, the more people who you let knight you with the sword of failure.
Now all of her books are massive bestsellers. She publishes so many books she has to use two names. Whenever I see her she is smiling.
She was realistic. She knew she had skills. But she also knew that publishers didn’t believe in those skills.
She made a very honest assessment and that allowed her to weave her way through a complicated industry to make the right decision. In the 17th year of doing what she loved to do.
One time I made a website. I won’t describe the details of it. It was stupid. But we all have a tendency to smoke crack for at least a short while. Eventually I saw: no users, no revenues, no interest. So I shut it down before turning a mistake into a failure. And I started a new site that got millions of users.
People say “fail fast”. This is hard to do. But it’s not so hard to “mistake fast”.
5. 1% A DAY.
I have a friend who is feeling down. He doesn’t like his job. He’s uncomfortable with the people he is working with. He’s had this job for ten years so he’s afraid to bail now after putting in so much time.
He wants to make a fast change.
Every day, though, is a new day. The past is just a photograph. The present is everything we can see and feel and hear and touch and love and live. The future is a fantasy.
So today improve just 1%.
That sounds trite. What is “one percent”.
Maybe I’ll write a list of ideas today. Maybe I’ll take a walk. Maybe I’ll call someone I love. Or maybe I will shower twice and do pushups. (or, ahem, maybe shower once).
Maybe you can tell me: what are all the ways someone can improve their lives 1%.
Maybe I’ll eat 1% less junk food. Or read a book instead of some stupid news article that is filling up the inane news cycle of the week before it’s forgotten when the next news cycle hits.
Maybe I won’t argue about a stupid issue. Or maybe I will spend time with my kids.
Someone once wrote a completely insane comment on my wall the other day. I delete it and moved on. No need to argue.
Another person wrote a blog post accusing me of trying to control him with “Neuro-weaponry” apparently developed by the US Navy. I ignore it and move on. I don’t even like to swim.
What are some other ideas? I hope you can tell me.
1% seems like a small amount.
And it is a small amount. It’s tiny. It’s easy. It’s doable. Today.
But 1% compounds. If you improve 1% a week you will improve 3800% in a year. I don’t even know what that means. Life is not a number.
But it means your life will be COMPLETELY different.
I know this is true. My life is completely different than it was a year ago.
And a year before that. And I can barely recognize the year before that. I can’t even remember two years ago actually.
Sometimes just a kiss improves my life 1%.
I’ve mentioned this a million times. But I write the stupidest lamest ideas down every single day. Ten ideas a day.
The other day Claudia asked me on my “Ask Altucher” podcast what were the ten ideas I had for that day.
I was surprised she asked and a little embarrassed. I pulled out my waiter’s pad to see what I had written that morning.
It was ten business ideas to improve toilets. I read them on the podcast. You can decide if they are good or bad. Maybe somebody will make a billion dollar business out of one of the ideas. Or not.
Every day I come up with ideas and write them in my waiter’s pads. Almost all of them bad. The more bad ideas the better.
I was raised to think perfectionism was a law. That an A+ grade was “good” and a D- was “bad”.
Creativity is about BREAKING the law. Breaking what everyone else thinks are the rules.
You will only create something new when you go beyond the rules. That’s the edge.
If you come up with ideas every day: to improve your business, to make new businesses, to write books, to surprise people, to network people, to find new ways to love the people you love, you can’t fail.
3000 ideas a year, good or bad, are like a fortress you build up to defend against the barbarian hordes of failure.
Entitlement is a disease.
When people come up to me and say, “I should be making $X at my job, I deserve it” I know there is only one outcome. They are either going to quit or be fired.
Nobody is entitled to anything. No matter what you did. No matter what you are about to do. Nobody is forced to give you the respect you think you deserve.
Jan Koum lived on food stamps when he was a kid. Dropped out of college. Was rejected by Facebook. All the while improving his programming skill until they were probably in the top 0.0001% of the world.
And still he would get rejected for jobs. So he rejected the gatekeepers and started his own little company.
Then he sold his company, WhatsApp, to Facebook for $19 billion.
He never sat back and said, “Screw them! They should hire me! Or show respect!”
Keep your head down. Be grateful for whatever you have because there’s no point in being upset about it .
You built your life to be where you are EXACTLY at this moment.
And use your network, your ideas, your health, your friends, your humility, to keep building the power around you.
Entitlement is a disease. The disease will spread through your mind, causing bitterness, resentment, and failure.
The disease is also contagious. So if you’re around friends with the disease, either stay away or tell them bluntly to get over themselves. And then stay away until they recover. Because if you get the disease, you’re going down with it.
I was talking to Marina Franklin, one of my favorite comedians. I asked her how long she worked at it before she felt she was professional comedian.
11 years, she said.
I was really disappointed at that answer. I just wanted to go on stage and become a comedian. Make people laugh. Shazam!
I asked Kristen Carney, another comedian, the same question a few days later. Four years, she said. Again I was disappointed. Aren’t people funny after a day or two?
Marina told me she would record all of her performances. Then listen to see where she could improve.
When I used to take chess lessons as a kid, my teacher would ask me to bring him games where I lost so we could look then over. “You can’t really learn from your wins,” he said.
In the losses, you get obsessed with every move. Where could I do better? I would micro-analyze the losses.
With the wins, even though someone DID lose the game, I just didn’t care.
Think about being a monkey in the jungle. If you got the banana, you ate, and then you were satisfied. If you didn’t get the banana, I don’t know, you probably tried really hard to figure out where you went wrong or else you would starve.
A failure only turns into a success if you slice it as thinly as possible and study the taste and texture of every slice. How could it be better. Else, your failure was for waste.
It’s not so bad to waste failure, by the way. There’s no judging. Maybe you didn’t like what you were doing in the first place. So you quit. That’s a good result also.
But analyzing the failure of jobs, businesses, creative efforts, friendships, loves, and whatever, will only make them better.
Maybe later I’ll read this and ask, “should I have put more stories in this” . It’s already 2700 words. Is that too long?
Should I have more examples from my life or others. This will be a chapter in a book some day so I’m sure I will analyze every word used.
Should I be more poetic. Failure, after all, is the seed from which sprouts all poems.
If I don’t do this, then my attempts to be a good writer will stagnate.
Because everything you do has failure inside of it. Just like every human has cancer cells. Every project is riddled with failure.
It’s only when you let the failure build into a malignant tumor that you have to take invasive and dangerous procedures to cure yourself.
I’m on vacation right now. Why am I writing this then? Because writing is fun and I love doing it.
But I also love to do other things. I’m on vacation in a place where the temperature is too hot for me. So for a relatively cheap price I rented a ping pong table, a 1980s arcade game (pac-man and galaga in one) and one of those basketball things that I can throw tiny basketballs into the hoop really quickly, and also a foosball game.
So even if I don’t leave the house Claudia, me, the kids, can have fun all day. For me this is like the ideal vacation. Some people like to hike in 95 degree weather. I like to play Ms. Pac-man.
Humans are not meant to work all day. But we are so trained to believe in the sanctity of work that are neuro-pathways are formed to give us happiness when we work too much. This is a false happiness.
Too much work has consequences. It makes us less creative. It harms our relationships with others. And after a certain number of hours, work only has minimal benefits.
Anatoly Karpov, the world chess champion for a decade, once said he studies chess THREE hours a day. After that, he said, it’s useless to him.
So what does he do after that? He plays tennis. Plays.
Too much work will lead to too much failure.
The best way to light up all of your brain is to play as much as possible. To figure out all the rules so you can break as many of them as possible when you get back to work.
The best way to show your loved ones you care – play with them. The best way to to change the direction your life is heading – draw in crayon all over the map your course was previously set.
The best way to walk a tight rope from one building to another, thousands of feet in the air, is to find the right balance to succeed. Else, you fall.
10. IT DOESN’T MATTER.
“Failure” is a definition your brain came up with. So is “success”. And it changes every generation. Every year. And for every person the definition is different.
If you look it up in the dictionary, there won’t be anything of value there. It’s always different all the time.
When I was just getting separated from my ex, on a Thanksgiving, getting fired from a job, losing a house, all at the same time, I went to a diner and had a Turkey sandwich and read a book. And then put an ad on Craigslist claiming to be a psychic.
That made me happy, despite everything going on.
Find the things that calm you today. That take out the harsh needle-stings left by failure. Smile at the cashier at the deli until she smiles back.
Forgive the relative or friends that was so unbearably cruel to you. Just for a moment.
Tomorrow you’re going to die. I may be right about that or wrong. It doesn’t matter.
So break the rules.
Become the criminal of your life, where you move beyond the edge you thought possible. Become authentic and honest and giving and deviously criminal.
Do it before you die. Slice it into each second.
You and I will both fail again and again. Blood and tears everywhere. And it’s no good. It’s no fun. It’s not worth worshipping.
But it will happen.
James Altucher is an American hedge fund manager, entrepreneur, bestselling author, and podcaster.