Today’s Financial Times carries a strangely insightful piece on the difference between failure and giving up. Failure has long been lauded in the start-up community as a precursor to eventual success, but as Lisa Pollack points out, what about the people who just give up before achieving either success or failure? There’s a broader life question about whether or not it’s okay to give up on things and Ms Pollack gives us some great examples from her own experience of giving up: A-level chemistry, numerous instruments, the Guides. It made me realise that not only is giving up far more common than failure, but as all MBA students will tell you, it’s perfectly rational to give up on things if there is a better pay-off elsewhere for a scarce resource – your own time.
Whilst we laud individuals who stick at things or great examples of heroic failure, should we be balancing this with a more nuanced view that says it makes no sense to pursue projects that are doomed to failure, or even mediocrity? Should common sense prevail?
Coming back to the world of shiny start-ups, it’s only VCs that operate in the binary grouping of start ups as either success or failure. If you take VC money, you are destined to fall into one of these categories as you burn cash in pursuit of lofty ambitions. But many start ups achieve more modest goals over longer periods. And there are plenty of successful companies that only grew because their founders gave up on an original idea to focus on a business that occurred by accident more than design. Think Paypal.
It may sound heretical, but perhaps giving up on things that don’t work isn’t failure. It’s just common sense.