Fail Fast and Gracefully

At the beginning of every Web Dev Immersive program we tell incoming students about our freedom to fail mantra. We tell students that they will fail often, and we want them to fail FAST. This is because in a program that moves as quickly as WDI we don’t want a student to struggle for days without highlighting to their instructional team that they didn’t grasp a concept or weren’t able to get their code working. If they don’t fail quickly we’ve likely already moved on and playing catch up affects everyone involved. Additionally we want students not to be afraid of failure, not to worry about being perfectionists, and to be able to articulate what they are (or aren’t) learning.

I heard another version or addition to our fail fast and loudly mantra today – fail cheaply. I paused and thought, doesn’t failing fast mean saving time and since time is one of the most precious commodities in existence, mean failing cheaply? Well…captain obvious….of course! Fail fast, cheap, often, loudly – they all contextualize failing in the same way – that failing is GOOD. What stood out to me is that the framing and contextualizing of failure can be more or less relevant in different contexts and stages of life. In a business context, when money is on the line, “fail fast and cheap” is more applicable than “fail fast and loudly”. MVPs and lean startups are all about failing cheaply – purposefully increment the level of resources you give to a product as you test and iterate so you can pivot quickly to best suit user needs. Failing fast and loudly is great in a learning environment where you have access to mentors. Failing fast and often is great when you’re in a learning environment and/or learning a trade.

Another variation that I don’t see as often, is failing fast and gracefully.  At a recent WDI alumni reunion and graduation ceremony, MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis told grads that they will fail often during their foray into the working world as junior web developers. He said something to the effect of “The trick in life is making these mistakes look purposeful and graceful”. I’ve since adopted failing fast and gracefully as my favorite version of the fail fast + something taglines.

During the first run through my head I thought failing gracefully might mean concealing some part of your failure by glossing over details and presenting half truths. But the more I thought about it, failing gracefully is the most liberating tagline of any “fail and” I’ve heard because it focuses on both the positive outcome of failure (learning) and on avoiding trying to blame someone or something for the failure.

To me, to be graceful is to be humble. It means you avoiding placing blame and carrying on through hard time. It embeds agency and shows a way out after failure by prohibiting you from focusing on the failure and making the only option an elegant solution. It pushes you to make a decision about how you are going to position your failure in the most reflective light possible.

So how do you fail fast and gracefully?

The simple guide to failing fast goes something like this:

  1. Take a step back and look around – do you see warning signs?
  2. Take a reality check – is the end goal is still possible in a desirable time frame?
  3. Ask for a 3rd party’s gut check on the situation, then ask for their more in depth thoughts
  4. Ask yourself if you’ve looked at the problem every which way possible – did you give it your all?
  5. and finally….Know when to quit

The simple guide to failing gracefully goes something like this:

  1. Acknowledge you’ve failed
  2. Smile because you’re starting over
  3. Find the root cause and reflect on what how you got there
  4. Mentally log that you will not make the same mistake again
  5. Tell yourself “hmm, things happened” and don’t place blame anywhere (many problems are so complex blame is shared by multiple parties and will only drag everyone down)
  6. Spread the learning and move on

I personally believe failing fast and gracefully is the most frequently applicable of the fail+ taglines. For me it’s been useful while learning a new subject, when dedicating resources at work, and in ending heated arguments with friends quickly and without damage.

At the end of the day, failing fast and gracefully means when you realize something you tried didn’t work, don’t dwell on the root cause – quickly find it and think about what you need to do to move forward. One of our instructors at General Assembly always says “mistakes were made and things happened, let’s get on with it.” He couldn’t be more right.

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