Seeing failures in layers

How to turn setbacks and adversity around into big wins

Everyone fails at some point in life. If someone tells you they have never failed, they are either not living a life or they are simply not telling you the truth. In entrepreneurship, failures are inevitable.

I’m not going to belittle anyone who has failed multiple times in their lifetime. However, I believe we all should get into a deeper level of observation and understand why we failed, not to dwell or complain or point the finger at someone else for our missteps, but to learn valuable lessons from our experiences.

By doing so, we can drastically reduce the chances of making the same mistake or falling into the similar trap again.

Not all input creates the exact same output

After some time of burying my head in the work—brainstorming, prototyping, creating content, distributing, promoting, selling, teaching—I spotted patterns in each one of them. There are many executions that require the same input, take the same amount of hours and the same amount of energy, but deliver a different impact at a different level.

If you have been reading my content for some time, you will see this pattern that I keep talking about.

Identity leads to behavior and then to appearance

In this case, your identity delivers the largest impact, then your behavior, and finally you shape your appearance.

Simon Sinek's start with Why

When talking about productivity, your Why comes first, then your How, then your What. I learned about this pattern from Simon Sinek. He believes in order to build a successful company, entrepreneurs and founders should start with why.

Putting this into perspective, your actions and execution also fit into the same pattern.

Three types of execution

When you look at your daily actions and execution in all area of your life, you will find a similar pattern

  • Vision: become a fit person. Strategy: eat right, move frequently, rest well. Tactic: intermittent fasting, weight lifting, sleep with the eye mask.
  • Vision: become a famous writer. Strategy: write and publish a book. Tactic: fiction novel.
  • Vision: run 10 marathons. Strategy: train weekly. Tactic: cold shower, breathing exercises, use a certain brand of running shoe.

Now, here is the ultimate truth (that you probably know already), you will probably fail in every action you take. There is no guaranteed success, every attempt of you doing something will always carry a certain risk of failure.

However, by looking at your actions and executions in the lens of this approach, you gain better clarity on what you did right and what you did wrong.

Instead of giving up your potential business idea when your cold-calling effort failed you, you get into email marketing because that is just a failure in tactic. Instead of hiring top notch developers to work on your imitated social media site that is 99.9 percent identical to Facebook, except the name of it, work on creating and validating new ideas.

The first layer of failure: tactic

Failure in tactic is a problem of WHAT.

This type of failure usually happens when you do the wrong thing or take an action that doesn’t work (if it has not right or wrong in the context). This is the place where most of us failed, the most frequent.

  • We thought extreme low-fat diet is the way to lose fat
  • We go to college and took a degree we will never use in our lifetime
  • We create a product we love for ourselves instead of a product that solves a problem for a group of people - our customers

Getting over this type of failures is simple and straight-forward here. To know if you’re doing the right thing, record the process, measure and review it regularly, then, pivot and adjust your tactics.

The second layer of failure: strategy

The failure in strategy is the problem of HOW.

How you do one thing is equally important as what you’re doing. In fact, it’s more important in most cases.

Steve Jobs was fired from Apple and then returned to the company when Apple was at its lowest point in 1997. The first order Jobs gave as the new CEO of Apple? Cut. He decided Apple should remove all the crappy products and focus their energy on the good ones. By the end of the year, Jobs has killed almost 70 percents of all Apple’s product.

A year later, Apple had gone from losses in billion to $309 million in profit.

The solution for the failure in strategy is less obvious, and it’s not easy and pleasant to execute. The core ideas here is to launch your strategy quick, then, fully focus on it.

Besides, always seek for ways to deploy a strategy cheaply. So, if it’s necessary, it’s easier for you to kill it or revise it rapidly.

The third layer of failure: vision

The hardest failure to deal with is the third type of failure which I called it the failure in vision. It’s a problem of WHY.

This happens when you’re not clear with why you’re doing something and the purpose behind your goals.

It’s common for many people when they find themselves depressed and unhappy with their life after they had achieved everything they ever wanted for their career and life. At the same time, the society also plays a big part here to shape a person into a certain mold without any individualism.

It’s not easy to fix the failure in vision, the main reason behind this is it usually take a longer time to surface. The damages usually can’t be undone. The last thing you want to do is to dwell on undesirable results and learn helplessness.

The best way is to avoid this type of failure by engaging in regular self-talk and reflection. Then, set up your underlined non-negotiable principles and finally, stand firm on it by navigating criticism and opposition.

There is no guaranteed success

There is a saying like this,

If you do exactly, and I mean 100 percent, the same things as a successful people, you will become successful.

No, you don’t.

Following the exact same steps as your role model or mentor will only help you to reduce failures and mistakes, they can point you to a simpler and quicker path, they can guide you to not fall into traps they did before, but they can’t guarantee your success.

How come? If you have the same vision, deploy the same strategies, and execute the same tactic, you should be receiving same results right?

First, getting all the three — vision, strategy, and tactic — aligned. But even if you get there, the answer is still NO.

To answer this question, ask yourself if you do exactly the same thing as Bill Gates now, are you going to become like Bill Gates 20 years later? Probably not.

Most people want a simplified formula to achieve their goals, and some people acknowledge that, so they trick other to think they have the guaranteed formula to attain everything you want. That’s the human nature, every single one of us wants the pleasure, in this case, the results, but not the pain - the works. Or in other words, failures.

There are something beyond the failures of vision, strategy, and tactic. And I called them the environment and timing.

Invisible layer of failure

Your tactic can be the brilliant-est tactic ever, your strategy is so advanced that people call you a genius by that, and your vision is so huge that sounds insane, however, without the right environment and timing, all of them don’t matter.

How do you solve that then? By giving up the temptation to feel 100 percent certain before you take an action, embracing the fear and possibility of failure, and approaching your executions as experiments.

Acknowledge the power of your environment, consciously design a winning surrounding - your habits, your living space, your workplace, and your network, and always be prepared to crush it when the timing is right.


  1. I first thought about the three types of execution after sometimes of building my career. Then I read about the 3 stages of failure by James Clear. The idea is similar, however, there are some differences on how James Clear and I see the failure in tactic and the failure in strategy. Highly recommend you to read that, James is a brilliant writer.
  2. I'm reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell at this moment and I spotted a similar idea we are talking about - opportunity. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell pointed out that success usually isn't the results of mere personal merits, in many cases, it's also about the opportunity. It's a great book to read if you like to explore more on the idea of how our environment and the timing affect our success.

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