What Being a Software Developer Has Taught Me About Failure

The most accomplished people in history are remembered for their successes. The countless failures that lead up to them are often left long forgotten. Thomas Edison had teachers tell him he was too stupid to learn- he ended up with 2,332 patents worldwide. Lincoln failed in his business ventures and lost at least one election in each of the House of Representatives, the US Senate and Vice President – today this guy is a consensus “Hall of Fame” president and is widely regarded as the presidential G.O.A.T. Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school twice. Worse, he created the abominations known as Jurassic Park III and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But he’s also considered the master of the blockbuster and one of the greatest directors in cinema history.  So why do we hold ourselves to such a higher standard?

As a software developer, my day job is basically failing to code something right until I actually get it to work. And then, when I think I finally have it all working, my QA comes along…

What a jerk, right? (I’m kidding, Ryan)
But I become a better developer every day. Every failure is a lesson and a way to grow. We developers are shocked whenever something does work the first time. If things did work the first time all the time, I don’t even know what I would learn or how I would get better.

You know what the #1 thing software development has taught me about failure is? Fail fast and be OK with failures. I could spend my whole day meticulously making sure every line I code works exactly as I expect it, not allowing myself to experiment at all. But then it still might be broken at the end of the day. Worse, I have now learned only one wrong way to do it. The best days are when I just keep developing. I try something, and it fails. Then I think about why it fails and quickly jump to try another way. Each failure is a lesson that will help me fail less often to get to the right answer the next time. If I just sat and brainstormed until I was confident I knew the right way to do it, I’d waste many a workday. Because, as much as I could try to think through all the possibilities in my head, I never will. I might be able to learn from thinking through the possible errors that could come up, but it’s much better to see them and be able to work through them.

So why do we quote Edison’s “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” and say stuff like “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” all while being frozen by fear of failure? Two reasons. One is that people mindlessly say inspirational quotes while not even pretending to apply them to their own lives. The other is the fear of wasting time, money and/or resources on something that doesn’t work out. Of course, the irony is that you are 100% guaranteeing wasted time when you aren’t trying. Want to write a book? You can either talk about it for the next 10 years, still have 0 pages to show for it and be exactly 0% better as a writer OR you can write. You can write short stories, poetry and maybe even a few novels that might be terrible. But now you have practice, you’ve become a better writer, and you have some inevitable failures under your belt. Which probably means you’re closer to reaching your first success. What if you delay investing in a 401k because you’re afraid of which direction the market is going? Yeah, you’ve got a 100% chance of losing out. How about this blog? You might think I’m the worst blogger on the internet. You might laugh at the fact that I’m pretty stoked by getting 20 views on any blog post I write. You might even say to yourself that you would do much better- and you might be right. But you’re sitting on your couch, reading a blog on your phone while watching “New Girl” on Netflix. I’m creating content, and becoming a better blogger. I’ll give myself the W.

So what should you do? Fear accomplishing nothing at all more than fearing failure. Fear never growing or learning or accomplishing anything over failure. Go do something you want to do. You want to invest in real estate? Start looking at properties. Want to learn to play the piano? Sign up for lessons. Want to write a book? Write page 1 of your first novel today. No one cares or remembers what people said they were going to do. Only what you actually do matters.


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