Fail Big, Fail Fast, Fail Often!

In the week of the 2015 US Masters golf championship, many eyes are on Rory McIlroy. In 2011, an even younger McIlroy was on the verge of making golfing history. He carried a 4-shot lead into the final round, having played sublime golf for the first three days of the championship. However, on his final round he shot the worst round in history by any professional golfer leading after the 3rd round of the Masters. Not the piece of history he was after. Rory suffered what can only be described as a ‘meltdown’ in the unforgiving glare of the TV cameras and the golfing world.

Some pundits questioned his bottle, his psyche, his temperament, and his ‘big game’ mentality. Some said, “history shows that players who cough up big leads in big tournaments often don’t get another chance, their psyches permanently shattered by thoughts of what might have been.” (

But, McIlroy went on to win 4 majors in the next three years, starting with the U.S.Open championship, just a few short months after his Augusta meltdown. He achieved his victory in some style too, setting a new championship record and becoming the youngest winner since 1923.

In an interview held just before this week’s Masters, Rory was asked to reflect on 2011 and what he had learned from it. He recalled how painful the experience had been and said that it “took a big chunk out of him”. But he was sure it had helped him to become a better golfer. In fact, he was glad that it happened in the dramatic way it did. Not at the time of course, but now. He went on to say that if he had lost the championship simply by playing sub-standard golf, perhaps hitting a few bogeys on a mediocre final round, and losing by one or two shots, his lesson and education would have been nowhere near so profound.

The sheer drama and immensity of Rory’s failure is a gift that keeps on giving as his sparkling career unfolds.

Most organizations are profoundly biased against suffering any failure, and wrap themselves in processes, procedures and check-lists to ensure they don’t succumb to them. It is of course often futile, as failure at some point is inevitable. The real failure is that most make little or no systematic effort to study and learn from it. Executives hide mistakes or perhaps even pretend they were always part of a clever grand plan. People grow afraid of hurting their career prospects and eventually avoid taking risks. Where attempts to ‘learn’ are carried out, they sometimes resemble a witch-hunt rather than a genuine search for knowledge and improvement.

Of course, I am not suggesting that failure, or planning to fail, is a good thing. Clearly not. It can have serious consequences; from wasting money to damaging reputations and can sometimes lead to tragedy. But it is inevitable in an ever more complex world.

Innovation and growth cannot happen without taking risks, and with risk, comes failure. James Dyson is reported to have created over 5,000 ‘failed’ prototypes before eventually taking a successful vacuum cleaner to market. In fact he has described his life as a ‘life of failure’. He said, “You learn from failures. You don’t learn from successes. You’ve got to go through that failure to learn how to succeed. So although I had 5,126 failures, I don’t regret any of them because I learned so much from them and it got me to the final solution.”

Successful people fail big, they fail fast and they fail often.

  • Big, because they try audacious things. You learn little from nibbling at the problem and not taking risks. If it is worth doing, then do it.
  • Fast, because they are hungry to learn the lessons quickly so that they can move on to their next attempt and put that learning into practice.
  • And often, because learning is not a once in a lifetime experience. Success comes from pushing boundaries, trying new things and not being afraid to fail.

There will be only one winner of this week’s U.S. Masters championship at Augusta. Close to another 100 will ‘fail’.  What will they learn?


[ You may also wish to read How close are you to your ‘A’ game? which deals with Rory McIlroy at the Honda Classic in 2013. ]


“The Vital Edge”, released in 2014 and available on, as well as at the following popular retailer sites…..takes you on a fascinating journey through the minds of athletes, Olympians, tennis players and more, as you discover insights that will transform your thinking and enable you, your teams and your business to perform at their very best.    Apple iBookstore    Barnes & Noble (including Nook)

About the author:   Louis Collins enables people to operate more successfully. You may be struggling to implement corporate strategy, you may want to get more productivity out of yourself or your teams but don’t know where to start, or you may not be having as effective conversations as you could be. I will work with you to enable you to formulate more effective ways of leading, to raise awareness of blockers to successful ways of working, and ultimately to help you and your managers to lead more successfully.


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