Ireland needs more Failure

Today we want to talk about something that's often swept under the carpet in's called FAILURE..

We've all been kicked in the teeth but failure can  provide us with new ways of thinking. Instead of being socially inappropriate it should be encouraged. It gives us keen insights on how we can improve as people, businesses and brands.

After al challenges are what makes life interesting. Overcoming them is what makes life more meaningful. 

 I was interviewed recently by a student from CIT (Cork Institute of Technology) doing a project on entrepreneurs in Cork. During our discussion Dara asked me: “What have you failed at and what have your learned from your failures?”

Think about it…it’s a really tough question that I encourage you to take a stab at trying to answer. It made me feel uncomfortable but also provoked me to confront some personal demons that lurk on the thin line between success and failure.

You see I’ve been involved in 7 start-ups… all in the early stages. Two of them were within a corporate environment with huge resource backing and five of them where boot strapped out of own pockets. Some have been great successes, others have been spectacular failures and others are still treading water…

This powerful quote by famous Irish playwright Samuel Beckett truly sums up the entrepreneurs journey…


It’s from Worstward Ho, a compelling prose piece Beckett wrote.

The reality is that we all fail. Successful people fail more often…because they put themselves in positions where they can fail more. Walt Disney was once fired from the Kansas City Star newspaper for not being creative enough. Ironically the Walt Disney Company would end up buying ABC – owners of the Kansas City Star.

Failing is at the heart of being human. It’s how we learn and yet it’s not very socially correct. We live in a culture obsessed with success and an idealised version of what that represents. Blogs, crafted profiles & selfies are the modern day tools empowering us but also co-opting us into creating an illusion of perfection.

The Blade Runner, Oscar Pistorius  - Nike’s poster child for Just Do It  - literally did… when he shot his girlfriend through the bathroom door. We’re still trying to reconcile the idea of an athlete we once loved & admired with the gruesome reality of the tragic death of Reeva Steenkamp.

So what does failure say about us and what can be learn from it..

I’ll share my own thoughts on failure using Beckett’s six imperatives as a framework.

(1) Ever Tried

I’ve met people who don’t want to try due to fear of failure. This fear can be crippling and worse than failure itself. Its massive stopping power prevents us ever attempting great things or trying to achieve something remarkable.

If we understand and accept this it can help grow our confidence and gain  forward momentum. So be courageous and sign up for projects that create stretch – projects where there is the risk of failure but also the potential for reward.

Trying means taking action. To succeed we need to be consistently making bold moves. We like to call it getting yourself into a no turning back position – making a commitment to doing something that you have no choice but to follow through on.

(2) Ever Failed

Let’s face it failure is painful – which is why most people prefer not to step out of their comfort zones. But without failure there can be no experimentation, no risk taking, no growth, no new inventions, no hope for a better world.

Trials do not make you, they reveal you. We all learn more from our mistakes than our successes. 

Mistakes are part of healthy risk and we should encourage people to come up with loads of bad ideas in the pursuit of great ones. When you fail and you will… be sure to own the reasons why and avoid making the same mistakes next time around.

 (3) No Matter 

You only fail when you’re unable to meet your own expectations or your perception of the expectations others have of you. Sometimes failure is about falling short of our own unrealistic expectations…

The most powerful thing is not to blame but to forgive yourself. Take responsibility for failure but don’t beat yourself up with blame & guilt. Cut the tape on the long list of could’ve, would’ve should’ve because it’s a dead end road.

(4) Try Again  

As a kid my grandmother would always tell me to get back on the horse after falling off. This is hard if you’re bruised and battered but the fail safe way not to fail is not to try at all.

So try, try and try again, really put your passion into it and aim for small victories. Imagine things as they never were & paint a picture of what success looks like for you. Concentrate your energy on the things that you have influence on and ignore externals that you can’t control or change.

 (5) Fail Again 

No one likes the prospect of failing again but in some ways success in a function of failure. Failure teaches us what won’t work while spinning the revolving door to new opportunities.

Keep trying – keep failing… but fail faster. Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity so keep iterating your ideas and trying different things.

Also learn when things are not working for you – identify why and then change. Einstein said “Insanity is doing the same things over and over again but expecting different results”

It’s the tension between acceptance of failure and the determination to try and change and move forward. Learn from failure so you can balance caution & risk taking but still keep the drive and enthusiasm to achieve.

(6) Fail Better 

As Zig Ziglar once said: “It’s not how far you fall, but how high you bounce that counts.” 
Learn how to create a mental landscape where the constraints of fear and failure are removed.

Try re-framing failure by seeing it as having some kind of meaning. If you see it as part of your Purpose it can enable you to redeem what you’ve lost and overcome it in a way that serves you and the people around you better. It's a great way to turn set backs into bounce backs.

If you’re in Dublin this weekend there is a wonderful exhibition called “Fail Better” on at the Science Gallery in Trinity College - Beckett’s alma mater.

The web site describes it as a showcase of “beautiful, heroic and instructive failures.” The purpose is to open up a debate on the role of failure in stimulating creativity, in learning, in science, engineering and design.

This is exactly what Ireland needs.