No, You Don’t Learn More from Failure
You probably believe, like so many people I’ve talked to, that you learn more from failure from success. Unfortunately, that’s total bullshit — in general, the only thing you learn from failure is, of all the ways you could have failed, you have discovered one of them. As a result, you’re wasting your time, making yourself and the people around you less happy, and losing the opportunity to be better, faster.
I used to believe this, too, but I’ve since learned that success is dramatically more important than failure, which has made me a better leader, friend, and father. In fact, I’ll show that you agree with me, even if you don’t realize it. If you can briefly invert what you’ve likely heard and said so much, this essay might just help you achieve more success, and be happier while on the path.
You Don’t Believe It
I’ve got a simple proposition that makes this really clear, but I also want to go deep in a couple of areas to explain why this belief is not just wrong, it’s dangerous.
Let’s say you’re building a garage (which, it turns out, I currently am), and you have two contractors to choose from: Someone who has attempted to build ten garages, and has successfully built ten garages; or someone who has tried to build ten garages, and has successfully built zero.
Obviously, you and everyone you know would hire the person who has experienced more (or rather, any) success building garages, and you’d ignore as a quack the person who couldn’t even build a single garage. But I thought you learned more from failure than from success?!
There are a bunch of other obvious examples. Do you want to learn basketball from Kobe Bryant or a basketball player who got dropped in college, you go for the one with success? Does your restaurant belong on a popular street with other successful restaurants and lots of reasons for people to visit, or a desolate strip where no restaurant has succeeded? Even, do you fight to take control of a busy drug corner, or try to convince users to go to a different corner? (Yes, I’m watching The Wire.) Should you emulate someone who has started 5 companies and never made any money, or someone who’s started one and built to a billion dollar company? There’s a reason we lionize the founders of Google et al, but can’t remember who started Webvan, much less any of the thousands of people whose companies never even got off the ground.
Why is it so alluring to think we learn more from failure than from success? A lot of it comes from the value of studying failures, both your own and others. The fact that you learn more from success doesn’t mean you can’t learn from failure; often, the only way to succeed is to study the failures, because, funny thing, in the beginning failure is all we usually have.
But don’t let that confuse you into thinking failure is somehow more worthwhile than success. When you fail, you often get stuck — you can’t move forward until you’ve fixed it. You lose time, momentum, and more. When you succeed, you can move on to the next step in your project, but more importantly, you have a single thing that you know works. There’s always a chance something else works better, and you might conclude at some point it’s important to improve what works (I’m always worried about local maxima), but if you’re failing, you can’t even start to worry about that.
Not Just Wrong; Dangerous
Think about your behaviors if you’re focusing on the failures instead of the successes. You’ve got a big sales team, a broad customer base, or even your own child. There’s always a wide variety of success and failure across your team, or even within an individual. If you focus on learning from failure, you’ll spend all your time with the failing salespeople, the pissed off customers, or the part of your kid’s life where they’re struggling.
Contrast that with focusing on success, on what works. You spend all your time with your best salespeople, ensuring they’re closing better deals even more quickly, and you learn from them what helps them outperform, so you can bring it back to the rest of the team. You work most closely with your happiest customers, figuring out what they love about your product and how you can find and create more customers like them. You’ve also spent a ton of time with your kid in the areas where they’re strong and awesome. They get to build life skills, and enough self-confidence they can more easily tackle the problems they’re not as good at.
In all of these areas, the individuals who are most important to you know you care about them, because you’re spending time with them, and they know you respect and appreciate their success because you’re focused on what they’re great at.
Think how your best people feel if you show up and instead of talking about the great deals, successful usage, or artistic talent, you only ever discuss their failures — “Because you’re focused on learning from failure.” Really?
Yet this is exactly the naive behavior of many managers, product managers, and parents. You ignore your best people, you ignore the things that are working well, and you force successful people to wallow in the misery of their failures.
Route Around the Failure
It’s not just that you should be more focused on the things that are working than those that aren’t; it’s that, in general, you should just literally ignore the failures.. You’re standing at a golf tee and you hit 20 balls. Most of them go wild and do stupid things, but one connects cleanly and lands on the fairway. Who cares about the other 19? Just figure out how to copy that 20th shot every day!
Obviously it’s not possible to ignore all failures, but when you can, it makes a ton more sense to just keep iterating until something works, without really making any attempt to understand those things that aren’t working. You try something 20 times, and only one works? Awesome! You found something that worked! Run with it.
Nature fully understands this. Nature cares nothing for failures. All those animals that failed to pass on their genes to viable offspring? Nature’s too worried about letting the successes run things to worry about the missing genes of the failures. Yes, I’m inappropriately ascribing intent to a natural process, but you get the idea. And yes, Nature generally operates on a longer time scale than the average startup, but you never get to viable offspring by spending all your time with animals that can’t have kids, and you’ll never get to a great product by worrying about the customers who think your product is stupid (unless that’s the only kind of customer you have).
Focusing on Failure is Depressing
I’ve never been accused of having too sunny a disposition, but this shift in perspective has dramatically improved my own outlook on life and how I work with everyone around me. The shift was heavily inspired by reading Switch by the Heath brothers; its subtitle is, “How to make change when change is hard”, and it really hammers home that focusing on the successes, no matter how small, is what allows progress. It’s not just that this works, though — it’s a lot more enjoyable.
Everyone hates spending all their time talking about the things they suck at, the projects that aren’t working, the customers that don’t renew, the classes you’re failing. Yes, you do have to do some of that, but it turns out, you don’t have to do nearly as much as you think. In fact, you should spend the majority of your time on the things that really are working. It’s not being a Pollyana — it’s following success, and it makes you and everyone around you happier and healthier.
One of the implications of this practice is that you rightfully give up more quickly on the failures than you might otherwise. You focus on the paths that are working well, and tend to quickly abandon approaches that aren’t working. All of your efforts and experience naturally concentrate on the areas most likely to lead to successful outcomes. .
Use It On Yourself, Too
This isn’t just about how you work with other people or stuff; it’s also about you. I’m not a big believer in following your passion, but I do believe strongly that nearly everyone has a different collection of strengths and weaknesses, and that most people have at least one or two strengths that they can form into truly valuable assets.
You have a choice in your life between spending all of your time on those things that you can be truly great at, or spending it trying to turn the things you suck at into things that you are merely bad at.
I’m personally strong on product, brand, and culture, but I’m never going to be great at operations or sales. I could work my whole life, and probably go from being a 2/10 in operations to being a 4/10, which still couldn’t get me a job. However, if I work enough, maybe I could turn my natural strength in product design from a 8/10 to a 9/10 or even 10/10. Which of these is a bigger asset to me personally, and to the people around me? Even better, which do you think is going to be more fun for me?
Yes, there are some areas where you have true liabilities, and you sometimes have to invest enough focused practice in these so they’re not holding you back, but even in those areas, you’re better off working hard to be part of a team that complements your weaknesses, rather than trying to make sure you’re good at all of it.
Yes, Failure Does Actually Matter
It’s true, this article is a touch hyperbolic, and I suppose some readings of it could cause one to conclude I think failure is irrelevant and you should always ignore it (even though I explicitly say above that failure is sometimes critical to understand).
Of course, I don’t actually believe that. I get a huge amount of utility from failure. I’ve studied crash logs with the best of them, I am a big fan of postmortems, and I prefer never to experience the same failure twice, which usually means I need to invest in understanding it well enough to prevent its reoccurrence.
What I want you to learn, though, is that you need to seek success. If you’ve got a product that isn’t quite doing what you want but has some happy customers doing some weird thing you don’t understand, go study their success and learn how to build on it. If you’ve got one programmer who ships more high quality software faster and more frequently than anyone else, shouldn’t you deeply invest in knowing what makes her special and how to spread that skillset around your organization? Your kid doesn’t fit in, and isn’t going to become the doctor you always dreamed of, but might accidentally be a music prodigy or a professional athlete; shouldn’t you dive deep into that, rather than wringing your hands about them not fulfilling your dreams for them?
Water flows downhill, routing around blockages, and everyone’s path to greatness involves developing that same ability to put all the weight behind the things that are working, and not get too fussed about the things that aren’t. If you can do that, you’ll be happier, more successful, and actually enjoy the time you spend helping the people around you achieve meaningful success in life and in work.