If there's one word that the startup scene and the corporate crowd don't see eye-to-eye on, it's failure.

Established companies, having long ago leveled off from ascent to cruising altitude, are precision-tuned to deliver reliability, predictability, and above all, "no surprises". Best Practices conferences and all that jazz.

Startups, seatbelt lights still very much aglow, have developed a full-on failure fetish. Free to Fail. Fail Fast. Fail Forward. #EpicFail. I mean: The startup community now literally hosts a Failure Conference.

How could something so basic as success vs. failure even be up for discussion, let alone debate?

Failure is the Gateway Drug to Success

Let's get something straight out of the gate: Nobody plans to, or enjoys, failing. Failing is a drag. Period.

Consider physical exercise. During a workout, your muscle fibers are damaged and weakened. They fail. It hurts and it's no fun. But then the nifty bit: With proper recovery and nutrition, they adapt by equipping themselves with the tools to survive that stress the next time around. That is to say: They grow back stronger.

Like muscle failure, a professional failure hurts, but is an opportunity to learn, adapt, and rebuild.

Seems straightforward enough. So why do startups train to exhaustion, while corporations seem to avoid such strain entirely?

Field Research

My teammate Jordan and I recently happened to take an impromptu tour of an actual gym near our office. It's one of these newfangled urban climbing joints where (mostly) young, (mostly) fit folks scheme non-obvious paths up simulated rock walls.

There was something undeniably "startup-y" about the place. Sure, there were the requisite beards, hoodies, and tattoos afoot, but it turns out that the whole place was itself metaphor for the startup mentality.

Corporate Ladders

When you work at an established company, there's an agreed-upon path up the well-known mountain: The venerable corporate ladder. While lengthy and monotonous, the corporate ladder is both proven and prudent, so long as you follow the posted rules & regulations:

1. Climb up. (Succeed.)
2. Climb safely. (Don't force us to call HR.)
3. Do not lean left nor right. (Don't get too crazy, Mr. Innovator)
And perhaps most importantly:
4. Never, ever climb down. (Don't screw up.)



The corporate ladder is one-way, their way. Or the highway. Up or out.

Startups: Ladders Not Included

At a startup, you're staring down an uncharted mountain. There aren't any ladders, because you're the first one up here. Your path to the peak: A giant slab of gnarly rock obscured by clouds. You know there's a way up, but finding it will require creativity, experimentation, and the gumption to climb down (i.e., fail) and to the side (i.e., pivot) in the very likely event you get stuck.

And that's really what's at the heart of this whole "freedom to fail" business, isn't it: The acknowledgement that lowercase failures are the cost of UPPER CASE SUCCESS. It was easy to play armchair quarterback in 2012 and mock Elon Musk for being an automotive failure. Here he is five years later preparing to DELIVER HALF A MILLION CARS. It was easy in 2016 to mock him for being a failed rocketeer, and there he'll be in 2050 COLONIZING MARS.

With enough altitude, hindsight, and resolve, our messy missteps become forgettable means to unforgettable ends.

Mountains Beyond Mountains

Granted, we're not all Mr. Musk. Many of us are still working for the weekend. Or to get out of debt. A fortunate few are working towards financial independence, or even beyond that, toward our children's.

But remember: There are always mountains beyond mountains. Success means having better problems to solve. Bill Gates, having improved the way the world works, has lately turned his energies to improving the way the world lives by focusing on curing malaria.

So think, for a minute, a bit about that professional rock you're currently climbing.

Is it important enough to you that you're willing to "little-f" fail at it en route to your eventual "capital-S" SUCCESS?

If not: You might need to set your sights on a bigger rock.

If so: Get some rest. Base camp breaks at dawn.

Published on: Jan 10, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.