Don’t Celebrate Failure, Celebrate Trying to Solve Hard Problems

February 27, 2020

It still pains me to think about the last board meeting I had for my startup. At that meeting, I had to tell everyone — investors and board members — that I lost their money and that the company, which had been developing wearable devices for people with cognitive disabilities and mental illness, was going to close. Everything was gone: hundreds of thousands of dollars and eight years of incredibly hard work. Connections the board had made and favors they’d done for me were wasted. Even now, several times a month, I still have a moment where my heart and gut aches over it, or I wonder what else could I have done.

Don’t tell me that I did not fail; I failed to create a sustainable business. I failed to provide a return to the investors, myself, my co-founder, and others. When I was going through that experience, the fad of “closing parties” was bubbling up in Silicon Valley as a way of celebrating ventures that didn’t pan out. I hated it then — and still do. I respected my investors, my mentors, and the customers I was trying to help too much to celebrate failing them.

What was hard, at the time, was that everyone wanted to tell me I didn’t fail. But at one meeting, with Diane Hessan, the founder and then-CEO of C Space, there was a key transition for me. I was floundering in figuring out what to do next, and Diane was kind enough to offer me career advice. During the conversation, we talked about the closing of my company, Therapeutic Systems. When we got to the point in the conversation where someone would usually tell me I was great and didn’t fail, she said something that changed everything for me: “It is okay to mourn closing the company.” It was really the first time someone said it was okay to feel angry, sad, and other emotions, which included feeling like a failure.

During my mourning period, I learned:

  1. I wasn’t a failure, but I did fail.
  2. I failed at some things, but I succeeded in a lot of things.
  3. The things I failed at had a high probability of failure to start, and many other people who were better funded, had more experience, and graduated from more prestigious schools also failed in the same market around the same time as my startup failed.
  4. How to focus on the successes along the way, and not just perseverate on the failures.
  5. That the attempt was worth celebrating, no matter if the venture itself was a success or failure.

Those lessons proved valuable in my next job, at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Innovation Hub in Boston, where I worked to develop early-stage innovation projects. Having been through the failure of a startup, I tended to be the most direct person in the room when we were working with innovators, cutting through the innovation theater and cheerleading. The most important thing we can do for internal innovators, especially in health care, is to respect their investment of their time and effort by being honest with them. That is especially vital when the data is showing their idea might not be as viable as everyone had hoped. My experience as an entrepreneur made it easier for me to initiate those tough conversations: “This idea doesn’t seem to be resonating. It might not be worth more of your time. Here is why. What other ideas do you have?”

For me, those conversations were not about branding something as a success or failure. Rather, I was talking with innovators about how to make an educated investment decision that they were empowered to make. Too often, because of the enthusiasm around innovation theater, and the desire that senior leaders have to cheerlead and support innovation however they can, innovators can get “caught in the current,” and dragged along to advance an effort that might no longer justify their time and sacrifices. We must be direct, because worse than failure is wasting the time and efforts of the people that choose to get involved with our innovation programs. Wasting their energy on projects that are going nowhere prevents them from having an impact somewhere else. 

That’s not to say that cheerleading for innovators is not important. We need to support the people who try. Almost by definition, when you start a project in a white space where no solutions exist, you are doing something outside the norm, something others don’t understand. But we need to balance the cheerleading and support with directness and honesty, like when a team that is losing a game knows not to keep fouling its opponents or taking time-outs.

With my startup, one of the most important pieces of feedback I got was from patients we were trying to help, whether it were a group of veterans or the parent of a child with autism; it was more important to them that we were trying to innovate for them than if our solution worked or not. Looking back on that experience, I can now say that I’m proud that I tried to help those people. And I’m continuing to try to support innovation in health care, especially around mental illness.

Whether in entrepreneurship or intrapreneurship inside an established company, trying is what we should be celebrating — not the failure, but the attempt. Without people trying their best, you can’t have either a success or a flop.

Trying to solve a hard problem, the kind that no one else is addressing, is difficult, risky — and worth encouraging in your organization. Without these attempts, nothing will change.


Brian Mullen is an Assistant Professor at the Massachusetts College of Arts and Design, Board President of the Institute for Human-Centered Design, and a former Innovation Strategy Manager at the Brigham Innovation Hub at Brigham & Women’s Hospital.