The Startup Liturgy, Part 1: Confessing Your Failures

Failure, courage, last ditch efforts, determination, wild success, honesty, lies, bullshit, naked truth, arrogance, power-hunger, humility, generosity, cupidity, stupidity, wisdom – startup life has all of these. Startup life is a weird microcosm of human life. More things happen in much less time to many fewer people, and especially at times when those people are not ready for them.

“…[y]ou can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years.” – Paul Graham, Dalai Lama of Startups

All of this means that more than most pursuits, startup life has (needs) practices and rituals to help startup people keep it real. We can’t lose ourselves or our highest values or our willingness to tell the truth of ourselves, to ourselves, or to others. We need tangible things we can hold onto, and we need meaningful reminders. VC funding and going public will drive people mad if they don’t have moral anchors.

Enter the Startup Liturgy: a new collection of half-reverent, half tongue-in-cheek rites, invocations, and symbols for living out truth, goodness, and beauty in startup life.

Today feels like a day to confess failures. I’m giving a shout out to the Anglican Christian tradition here. The prayer is one of those that kind of sticks in your head.

Here’s the original from the Book of Common Prayer:

“Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved thee with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we earnestly repent.
For the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in thy will,
and walk in thy ways,
to the glory of thy Name. Amen.”

Here’s my version, the Startup Penitential:

“Let us confess our sins against our users and our stakeholders.

We confess that we have sinned against our users and stakeholders in roadmap, code, and testing, by what we have shipped, and by what we have left un-shipped. We have not hustled with our whole hearts; we have not optimized our user experience as if it were our own. We are truly sorry and we humbly roll back our code. For the sake of our Chief Customer Persona, let us learn from our failures, that we may create value, and not be evil, to the betterment of the world. Amen.

I’ve given some nods to a few startup tropes. It’s a bit on the silly side.

But if you have ever worked at a startup, you can’t tell me this doesn’t capture the feeling of dread and crappiness and despair you get after you push a bug into production or miss a deadline. That’s right – you can’t. This prayer is powerful stuff, and there’s a reason the Anglicans have been using this exact prayer (with slight mods) for hundreds of years.

Whether it is a developer’s error or a marketer’s hubris, something will come along to royally screw things up in your company and in your life once in a while. You may be the one responsible.

A prayer like this is not about beating yourself up or dwelling on guilt or shortcoming. It’s about owning up to reality, invoking the help of the best within you and without you, and trying to do better.

This is just a part one of a Startup Liturgy, which started out with some random lighthearted wordplay but which may actually have have legs as an idea – because after all, startup people need rites too.

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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