Failures of Circumstance

Personal Growth Startups & Tech

James Clear has an excellent article on what he calls the 3 Stages of Failure.

In it, he differentiates between tactical failures, strategic failures, and failures of vision:

Stage 1 is a Failure of Tactics. These are HOW mistakes. They occur when you fail to build robust systems, forget to measure carefully, and get lazy with the details. A Failure of Tactics is a failure to execute on a good plan and a clear vision.

Stage 2 is a Failure of Strategy. These are WHAT mistakes. They occur when you follow a strategy that fails to deliver the results you want. You can know why you do the things you do and you can know how to do the work, but still choose the wrong what to make it happen.

Stage 3 is a Failure of Vision. These are WHY mistakes. They occur when you don’t set a clear direction for yourself, follow a vision that doesn’t fulfill you, or otherwise fail to understand why you do the things you do.

Highlighting this nuance is incredibly insightful. Knowing what’s holding you back is the first step to moving forward.

But I think Clear is missing a stage of failure here: Failures of Circumstance.

Failures of Circumstance occur when something unexpected and unpreventable and temporarygets in your way. The one-time exception, the freak accident, and the exception that proves the rule are examples of this type of failure.

If a natural disaster destroys your business, this isn’t a failure of tactics, strategy, or vision. If an unexpected illness disrupts your exercise routine, you shouldn’t change your plan for getting in shape.

Most of us accept this intuitively. There are some setbacks we can only mitigate, not avoid. Insurance helps you get back on your feet, but it doesn’t prevent the destruction. Vitamins and exercise strengthen your immune system, but they don’t prevent all illness.

The problem comes when we attribute a setback to the wrong type of failure. In the moment, it can be incredibly challenging to tell if your business isn’t growing because of something you did, something you should have foreseen, or something that’s random and temporary.

Most teams I know spend far too much time believing that something is circumstantial when it’s actually a tactical or strategic failure.

Next time you hit a snag that you think might be a Failure of Circumstance, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this temporary, one-time setback, or will the same thing happen repeatedly?
  • Could I have reasonably foreseen this happening and taken different actions to avoid this setback altogether?

If the answer to either of those is yes, it’s time to change your tactics or your strategy. If not, keep going. Persistence and grit are key when facing Failures of Circumstance.