THE INC. LIFE

It Took This Hilarious Stand-Up Comic Just 1 Sentence to Give the Best Advice on Failure Ever

Comedian Ari Shaffir on why failure isn’t a lack of success. Failing is the process that leads to success.

Share on
BY Jeff Haden - 10 Oct 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

While failure can be incredibly painful, at least as a topic it's awfully popular.

Plenty of smart people say we should fail fast and fail often. Others say failure is the foundation of innovation. Silicon Valley loves failures, and evidently you should too.

But there's a better way to approach failure: Take the Ari Shaffir approach.

Ari Shaffir is an extremely successful -- and extremely funny -- comedian, actor, and host of the podcast Skeptic Tank. (I first spoke with Ari about the startup Laughable, the iOS app that lets you subscribe not only to podcast series but also to individual comedians, and listen to podcasts from within the app itself.)

And he recently released two Netflix specials at the same time. (Check them out; they're great.)

Ari's approach to failure is simple: Failure isn't a lack of success. Failure is just a process that leads to success.

That's definitely the case where developing new material is concerned.

"I love doing my podcast," Ari says, "but it's not my art form. I don't have to work on it. It's off the cuff."

Stand-up material is altogether different. "If I focus solely on developing new material," Ari says, "then I can get a new 45 minute to an hour in about six months. Then I'l work on it and work on it and can make it killer within another six months or so."

But "working on it" does not mean locking himself away in a room as he revises and refines. "Working on it" means constantly trying out new material in clubs and theaters.

And failing.

"Failing is part of my process," Ari says. "A new bit never works the first time. I figure I have to bomb 7 times to make it good. So I tweak it. Then maybe the next time it will do great... but then it will fall flat again. So I'll make more adjustments. Then it will be great, then it will be terrible again... and all of that is okay.

"To me, every time it goes badly I see it as a good thing -- because that means I'm one step closer to where I want to be."

The best stand-ups are like scientists... and entrepreneurs. It's like the Lean Startup approach to creating a minimum viable product. Once Ari feels a bit is good enough to try, he takes it out on the road in order to get feedback that he can use to make it much better.

That's why Ari sees failing as a good thing.

But he doesn't try 10 new bits, keep the one that works, and discard the rest. He figures out why new material isn't working as well as he wants -- and he relentlessly strives to make it better.

And you can too.

See failing as part of a valuable feedback loop. If you're pitching investors, assume it will take at least 7 times for you to get it right. Do your best to come up with a winning presentation, and then take your material out on the road. It may be terrible. That's okay. Improve what went wrong. Tweak your approach. Revise your slides. Then try again.

Some bits will work. Others will not. That's okay. Keep going. Improve the bits that don't work and tweak the ones that do so they work even better.

Each time you do, your confidence will grow, and that will increase your motivation to make your pitch even better.

By the 6th or 7th time, you'll not only have a much better pitch -- you'll also be so good that you'll be able to adapt on the fly as you read the room.

Think of it that way, and failing isn't a lack of success.

Failing is the process that leads to success.