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July 13, 2022

Fail in the right direction

One month on from the announcement of our 2022 40 Under 40, award judge and KWP! group creative director Joshua Fanning reflects on why a purposeful life is better than one measured by success and failure.

  • Words: Joshua Fanning

If success was a box on a shelf, the people selling it would slap a big starburst on the front – “Now With More Failure!” In the same way Wonder White spruiks “vitamins & minerals” on their most nutrition-less imitation of bread, many talking heads in the startup community talk about “failure” like it’s a key ingredient of success. 

It isn’t.

Failure – if I’m to stick with this dubious consumption metaphor – is the bowel movement of determination. So is success.

Reading the 40 Under 40 applications this year, I found myself lingering in the ‘setbacks’ section. I can assure you the CV part of every application (the “front of the box”, in cereal terms) was inspiring. We’ve got some incredible over-achievers under the age of 40 in South Australia.


Read the full list of winners of the 2022 40 Under 40 here.

However, in the setbacks section there was a different story to be had. The entries which grabbed my attention were those that shared the context of success through the lens of the entrant’s entire life. The best entries demonstrated – to me, at least – that a CV can reflect life pursuits, values and determination. 

“Fail fast. Fail often.”

I first heard this maxim of the entrepreneur around 2010 or ’12. Some time after my second so-called-failure. To me, the ‘fail fast, fail often’ maxim sounded like something a charlatan might say (and it still does). My first ‘failure’ was anything but a failure, in my experience. It was a magazine I created with friends from uni and sold to a rambunctious venture capitalist from the Gold Coast. We told stories of the city’s underground creatives and connected them to the nascent culture they were forming in Adelaide, but couldn’t necessarily see without our coverage. The GFC helped our investor and us realise that our ambition to change the city’s self-image – commendable as it was – wasn’t profitable. 

The second failure was a magazine made in Adelaide that sold well in 18 countries around the world. It won us work in New York and Los Angeles, but – again – didn’t have a business model itself that fed anyone with anything but esteem. 

And so we launched another magazine, CityMag, with the same group of determined people. We were not necessarily determined to succeed or avoid failure but to tell the stories of this city in a way that built the city’s morale, rather than diminish it. In that mission we were, and remain, a success.

There’s a beautiful quote from Victor Frankl, adapted from Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” Granted it would be more beautiful and inclusive if Victor had written ‘they who have’, but let’s not cancel him for that. This insight is powerful and much more essential to any semblance of success than failure. Not giving up – yes, that’s part of it. But knowing why you are not giving up gives meaning to your life. People who know why they get out of bed are the same people who change the world.

The startup and entrepreneur world’s obsession with success vis-à-vis failure misses the point. Success doesn’t matter. Failure doesn’t matter. What matters to humans and what I read in every one of the successful 40 Under 40 applications is the belief that a single human can make a difference. 

It’s important to beware snappy phrases and jingoistic platitudes that try and simplify, package up, and sell life as a series of dot points. Failure isn’t something you necessarily move on from, it’s something that replaces fear, makes you mentally strong so that rather than give up, you can keep going.

Fail fast or slow, but spend your life knowing yourself better, knowing what you can do, not only for yourself but, for the good of everyone around you. And, if you’re under the age of 40, you might even get an award.

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