Innovation Strategist & 2x Entrepreneur

Failure Sucks. Level Up Instead.

Celebrating failure is a bad way to deal with the paralyzing fear of it. We need something more constructive. Consider this: life is a game, you’re a character, and your objective is to Level Up.  The result is a powerful new way to think about the Entrepreneurial Journey.

You Get What You Focus on

The Startup community is obsessed with failure. I don’t care how you spin it, failure sucks. It hurts, it’s embarrassing, and it costs time, energy and resources that you can’t get back. Yet the startup community celebrates failure as a learning opportunity and phrases such as “fail fast” have formed part of the common parlance, particularly among the Lean Startup movement. Taken in context, “fail fast” is shortcode for “test, validate and learn”, and I agree that major lessons can be learned from failure – but failure by itself is not a valuable outcome.

The irony is, you get what you focus on. When the common language is filled with discussion about failure – articles discussing the failure rate of new companies, or techniques for ‘failing fast’ – we focus on failure. In fact, many of us secretly battle in a paralyzing fear of failure, while our competitive nature is constantly drawn towards noticing the success of others.  So why focus on failure?

This is a perfect mess. We need something much more constructive to focus our energy on.

The Entrepreneurial Journey is a Game & you’re a Character

Let me present an alternative mindset which can have powerful benefits for our perception of failure, success, and progress.

What if life is just a giant game and you are a character? The game is a process of improvement over time towards an ultimate score.

Think of life as something called the Big Game. You have no choice but to play. It starts when you’re born and ends when you die. There is no official scorecard but players can choose their own metric to measure what they deem to be important. Some choose to measure their lives in the number of people that love them, the memories in their photo album, the balance of their bank account, or the good deeds they’ve done.  There is no right or wrong – whatever metric you choose, the score simply measures your progress.  In the Big Game there is no save as, pause, undo or rewind. You are on a relentless continuum of time and you only have one shot to maximize your score.

You are a Character in the game. There are 8 billion people playing. Like the other characters, at birth you have very little ability, except perhaps a talent or two. Some characters have more talent to start than others, but talent alone will not help you get your highest possible score. There are many other attributes necessary to increase your score and over time you must acquire new skills and abilities to increase your effectiveness in the Game. Early on you might train your mind in school, learn to create things, build relationships, and manage your emotions.

The Entrepreneurial Journey is a mini-game inside the Big Game. It starts the day you decide to create and build a company. Anyone can play and no special skills are required, except perhaps a slightly greater than average endowment of imagination, passion and drive. Otherwise, anyone can start with whatever they have. Just like the Big Game, the Entrepreneurial Journey also has a score card.  Progress can be measured in widgets sold, revenue earned, or people’s lives impacted.

Your Objective is to Level Up

The Big Game and the Entrepreneurial Journey mini-game are about progress and improvement. If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. The only way to progress is to Level Up. The only way to Level Up is to go on new Quests.

A Quest is a new activity you haven’t attempted before. It is a challenge at a level of difficulty you have not yet overcome.  You might build a website for the first time or hire your first employee.  You might make your first acquisition or launch a product in a foreign country. Each is a Quest that gives you a chance to Level Up.

Not all Quests are available to everyone.  They become unlocked with your progress and often arise in a sequence.  Generally, the quest of Raising a Venture Round is not available without successfully completing the quest to Achieve Product/Market Fit.

Every time you successfully complete a Quest, you Level Up and acquire new skills and abilities that improve your performance. Novices with low Levels add points slowly; experts with high Levels accumulate points quickly. The sum total of your skills and abilities, your overall level, dictates how well you perform.

Similarly, when you attempt a new Quest, there is no guarantee you will succeed.  In fact, there is some (illustrative) math to this.  You are more likely to not succeed on the first attempt, but success becomes more likely with every attempt.  The benefit of Leveling Up is that the next time you attempt to attempt an activity you have already achieved, you are virtually guaranteed of success the first time. After you’ve secured your first $1m enterprise software deal, you are virtually guaranteed of doing it again.

Leveling Up applies to your Team too

VC’s and angels say “I’ll back an A-team with a B-idea before I back a B-team with an A-idea, every day of the week”. Why? Because the A-team has Leveled Up well beyond the B-team and the A-team’s future success is much more probable as a result.

Can you look at your team through this lens? What abilities has it acquired? What capabilities does it need next, and what is missing? The team is Level 80 at Product, but Level 6 at Marketing. You might be Level 50 at Recruitment but Level 14 at Leadership?

For startups, some people have attempted to define the perfect team. One of my favorite models is “Hacker Hipster Hustler”, which is really the same as “Product, Design, Sales”. Does this mean the perfect startup has 3 people, or 2, or 4? How do you explain successful single founders? Some understanding can be found if you look at how Leveled Up the team is, overall. You would ask, “how has this group of people collectively enhanced their abilities?”

If you’re a VC, evaluating a team is a key part of your expertise. But what you’re really doing is evaluating the abilities and attributes (i.e. Levels) of the characters presenting themselves as a startup team. If you’re a founder, can you walk into that investment meeting ready to answer the question, “why this band of characters? Why is this group special?”

Super-Quests are the Great Differentiator

Some quests are extraordinarily difficult. The prospect of succeeding is low and the cost to attempt them is high. These quests act as a gate which filter out weaker characters. On the other side of the gate are new quests which are only available to the strong and the persistent.

Founders who persevere through their quests have higher chances of success. They achieve more Level Ups than characters who quit.

This video of Elon Musk is legendary. The guy has founded two billion-dollar companies. Had he not persevered through the “raise capital during a financial crisis” quest, he would have exactly zero companies – both would have gone bust on 24th December 2008. You can see the pain in his eyes at 38:10.

What does all of this mean?

Thinking this way can have a powerful effect on the entrepreneurial mindset:

The focus is on progress. Each time a new Quest is conquered, the player Levels Up in a way that can never be taken away. Success and failure, in the binary and fatalist way is meaningless. The path to success is to go on as many quests as possible, achieve an outcome quickly, and maintain consistent focus on succeeding at one quest at a time. Every day of forward motion achieves permanent progress.

There is no need to be afraid of failure.  Fear is just a signal that there is a Quest to conquer.  Succeeding immediately at a  quest is unlikely, and in the face of failure, the best thing to do is try again at exactly the same thing in a slightly different way. Each attempt increases the chance of success.

Perseverance is the only logical strategy. There is no need to grit my teeth, bite the leather, psyche myself up, and go out with a blast. That is wasted energy directed towards overcoming fear. I just need to remember there is a 95% chance of success if I try 3 times. It took Space-X four attempts to launch a rocket before they succeeded. All one must do is break the big ‘scary’ challenge into smaller pieces and identify the sequence of challenges to conquer.

Leveling Up is permanent. Once a new Level is achieved, it’s there to keep. The outcome of your project or company does not affect the Level you have achieved along the way. Once you have Leveled Up, you will continue to succeed every time you need to face that same challenge. Going on new quests to achieve new Levels is always a good investment – so long as you do not quit along the way.

Visualizing Success helps. The human brain is wired to gravitate towards the things it imagines.  Supreme athletes take their visualizations very seriously.  Gold medal winners don’t entertain failure. In the starting blocks, they close their eyes and see a high-definition, 3D, color video of running the perfect race and coming in first. The same is true of entrepreneurs: focusing on visualizing our success will push us forward until we have achieved the Level Up we need.

Leveling Up is a framework for continuous improvement. Based on a Level today, I can choose which quest to go on next. This applies to us as individuals, but also to a team and company. We can identify the ultimate objective, and chart a line of progressive steps to unlock more powerful quests in the future. Along the way, new abilities will be acquired that allow us to succeed at future challenges with a high degree of confidence.

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Do you agree?  Go ahead and tell me what you think, I’m all ears.

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Kosta Stavreas

Innovation Strategist & 2x Entrepreneur