There is an old Japanese proverb, which goes, “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.” When I first read this as a boy studying Isshin-ryū karate, it was one of those simple yet profound statements that struck me as true. And in the many years between now and then, having fallen down far more than seven times, having gotten up far more than eight, this proverb rings even more true. It isn’t easy living with this mentality. Particularly in a world where there is a socially acceptable readymade excuse for absolutely every type of failure, for not standing up.
Nowhere is this ancient proverb however more true than in the worlds of startups and Special Forces (SF). And nowhere is failure and the standing up that comes after more sought after than in these same two worlds. This seems counterintuitive given both are zero fail worlds, where failure means destruction and even death. Perhaps some contextual definition of failure is required to make sense of this apparent oxymoron. The dictionary definition gives us…
noun fail·ure \ˈfāl-yər\
1. a: omission of occurrence or performance; specifically: a failing to perform a duty or expected action <failure to pay the rent on time>
b(1): a state of inability to perform a normal function <kidney failure> —compare heart failure (2): an abrupt cessation of normal functioning <a power failure>
c: a fracturing or giving way under stress <structural failure>
2. a: lack of success
b: a failing in business: bankruptcy
source: Merriam Webster Dictionary
While a cost is assigned to each, not a single one of the conditions provided by these definitions is unrecoverable. One can pay their rent when capable, can go on dialysis until receipt of a kidney, can survive and mostly recover from heart attack and fractures heal given time and proper care. A lack of success is most often only a temporary setback and bankruptcy was put in place just so individuals and corporations can recover and once more be a contributing member of the economy.
However, though these types of failures and their related kin are within the vein of “falling down and standing up” of the proverb, these formal definitions of failure are neither that sought after in startups and Special Forces, nor do they provide the full meaning of the Proverb. None of these define the type of failure sought after by SF and startups or that of an ancient Japanese proverb. The type of failure sought is that which makes the individual and the organization they belong to stronger.
There is another ancient Japanese word and concept related to this very same line of reasoning. Kintsugi (金継ぎ- golden joinery) or Kintsukuroi (金繕い – golden repair) is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. Kintsugi or Kintsukuroi is a philosophy that treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, not something to be hidden, but rather as wabi-sabi (侘寂), which is an embracing of the flawed or imperfect.
It is this very philosophy of embracing the imperfections and irregularities arising from failures which makes one stronger, that is sought after in the management teams of startups and in the individuals of an SF team. In the world of SF, the herculean selection process and the at least year and a half of training after, which are only the beginning of the Green Beret’s many years of training, are intentionally designed to cause failures, many little failures, while providing for the means by which to repair these failures.
Startup management teams of course lack this selection process and the many years of training after, in which to realize their little failures, and the mending process after, nor can investors afford to fund this critical process. This creates a problem in an industry where this very mind, the mind of fall down seven times, stand up eight, is so necessary. There are conceptual ways however to adapt portions of the SF methodology of creating fissures in the individual to be filled with golden lacquer needed to make the startup founders and founder teams stronger and more effective, less likely of the unacceptable big failure.
- Provide key leaders and individuals a task with very high probability of failure but which is not a no-fail for the success of the startup, a task the output of, whether ultimately successful or not, adds to the intangible asset base;
- Reward attempt, if it means the development of the individual, those who are thinking rather than simply doing, even if this means supporting an initiative well outside the normal purview of the startup’s business model;
- Ensure at least some on the team have had or were a part of a startup failure, those who have strengthened themselves with the knowledge gained, and who have the capacity to share this mind with the rest of the team; and
- Seek out those who do not fear failure, who themselves seek it out in little ways here and there as a means to perfect and improve their skills, knowledge, and capacity in order to deliver when things get hard and it success matters most.
There is really only one true type of failure and that is not learning from the many little inevitable failures, mistakes, and setbacks in the course of living and working, or in allowing failure to be the final result, the defining moment in an effort or life. All other types of failures do nothing but create a history, fissures to be filled with precious metal infused lacquer, strengthening the individual and the efforts they engage in.
This is not completely true, there is another type of failure far more destructive and dangerous than not learning from one’s own failures, mistakes, and setbacks. And that is ostracizing, or in other ways refusing to benefit from those who have or who are experiencing failure, gaining from their experience, from the knowledge they possess that can only be attained in failure.
There are two concepts related to failure startups should take from Special Forces. The first is that failure is necessary to the attainment of certain knowledge and ways of thinking which cannot be realized through success, through never pushing hard enough to fail, and that this failure should be sought out and fostered within the team. The second is that the fear of failure is the single greatest hindrance to success in any endeavor, a fear which is only obviated through the individual having failed, having made mistakes and experienced personal and professional setbacks, and been made the better for all of it.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on December 9, 2015.
E.M. Burlingame is a Silicon Valley techpreneur and later a Private Equity investor and Investment Banker with an emphasis on very early-stage technology companies. Having recently completed active duty service with 1st BN 1st Special Forces Group, E.M. is now serving with 20th. E.M. is currently Founder of the Honos Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to empowering local entrepreneurship in violence repressed areas, and Founder and Managing Director of Emerio Group, an early-stage investment advisory. Following a degree in Strategic Studies and Defense Analysis at Norwich, he is now pursuing PhD studies in Interdisciplinary Engineering, with an emphasis on Computational Engineering at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.