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Failing early and pursuing a dream

One of Nik Halik’s pieces of advice to entrepreneurs seeking to build their income is to fail early, that is, find out as quickly as possible whether or not a business idea is going to work and move on to something else if it isn’t. I’ve heard this advice elsewhere—but I’ve also heard advice to continue chasing one’s dreams in the face of setbacks, including Halik’s own advice to strive for the life that one wants to lead. So do I give up and move on as quickly as possible, or persist in that dream? sells a faux motivational poster that, to my mind, captures the dilemma faced by entrepreneurs or anyone else following a dream much better than glib advice to “fail early” or that “failure means you haven’t succeeded yet”. Giving up at the first sign of trouble dooms one to failure, while persisting on a doomed venture resembles the famous (but spurious) definition of insanity involving doing the same thing over and over. The really tough question is, how do you know you’re on a winner that needs a little more persistence, or a loser from which you ought to move on?

I doubt that there’s an answer that could be summarised in a pithy statement applicable to all circumstances. Reflecting on how far (or little) I’ve come along on various dreams I’ve had since I was a teenager, I succeeded in becoming an engineer and then an academic after years of study, practice and work. On other hand, I more or less gave away fiction writing for a long time after having little success with my early efforts and then becoming absorbed in academic writing. And I gave up any dream of being a serious musician upon realising that I was putting in nowhere enough time into it compared with the amount of time I spent on engineering and writing.

In engineering, I’m sure that it helped enormously to have a fairly regular stream of good feedback in terms of academic grades, offers of employment, working software, and published papers. Since taking up writing again, I’ve had some minor successes by getting paid (however little) for Science Fiction and the Economics of Utopia and Satisfaction, with a couple more on the way, giving me some encouragement to persist on larger projects. Perhaps “failing early” ought to be complemented by “winning early”, meaning to build up experience and confidence with successes on small or partial projects before attempting to complete larger ones.

Halik’s advice, at least to the level at which I’ve summarised it above, seems directed at someone embarking on an entrepreneurial endeavour purely in the hope that it makes money. If the first idea doesn’t make money, find out as quickly and possible and move on to the next one, until (it is hoped) one turns a profit. Of course trying out each idea requires a certain amount of time and money, but the point is to use up as little of it as possible before deciding whether the idea is a good one or not.

A more charitable interpretation, consistent with my own experience but that I hear about far less often, might be to cultivate dreams with the breadth and flexibility to encompass many paths to success. Making money might be considered a rather crude form of such a dream, encompassing an enormous number of ways in which money might be made. Aspiring to be an intellectual or an artist or a generally useful member of society, say, might be more reputable and still allows for forms of success ranging from writing best-selling books to contributing thoughtful comments to on-line articles or producing hobby craft. The famous definition of insanity, of course, refers only to trying the same thing over and over.

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