On learning to fail.

failure is merely scaffolding for success

In April this year, I had a chance to go back to my undergraduate engineering school - NIT Kurukshetra in India. As part of attending the golden jubilee convocation ceremony, I got to talk to many undergraduate students and found myself talking more about failure than success:

As I return to the place where I learnt the basics of engineering, I think fondly of the time spent learning. The environment was mostly supportive - your fellow students generally want you to learn and succeed and so do the teachers and other staff. And if one doesn’t think about it you may miss the subtle point that classes and education is teaching you how to succeed by not failing. However, as one leaves the undergraduate years and begins to deal with adversities and adversaries of all kinds, it becomes clear that dealing with failure is a fundamental part of building any kind of success - professionally and personally.

Failure is in fact a fundamental part of the scaffolding required to construct success.

Real life, often first faced outside engineering institutions is the first instance in most of our lives when there are no clear recipes for success nor are there any institutions where the entire effort is focused on making you succeed. Not even the best of companies can provide an environment that exclusively built for making you do well.

So, how does one learn ‘how to fail’? Failure is not an absence of effort. The best kind of failures are in fact fueled by a lot of effort - but it may not be as productive or channeled in the right direction to produce the desired intent. Failing at academics is quite easy - not highly recommended if you want to finish the degree and move on to the next part. Failing at all other pursuits is in fact educational while it may not be always pleasant initially. You may ask a fellow student to participate or cooperate in sports, a game, or casual entertainment and they may decline - a soft failure. But if you likely subconsciously learn from it and adjust + navigate accordingly the next time to achieve the desired effect. These everyday experiences and the conscious practice of everyday life builds the fabric on which to weave professional or academic efforts. Negotiating skills are best learnt trying to persuade your fellow students to pay for coffee/tea/beer, just as conflict-resolution skills are picked up trying to form, join, or leave ever changing social groups.

And when you start working at a startup or a large company, ‘what’ you do professionally is expected and is required for success. However, ‘how’ you interact, communicate, and advocate is critical for success. This second part of emotional+social+collaborative learning cannot be achieved without constant failure. These skills cannot be read from books and discussed in term-papers or assignments. These can only be honed by daily iteration.

The bad news is that very few of us are born with these skills. The good news is that these skills can be learnt. The great news is that we can learn them without going to class for them or require a teacher. We require only our peers, friends, and family. There are no exams and hence no big failures, just micro-failures every day that allow us to constantly learn, change what doesn’t work and try something new the next day.

So while you are spending four years trying to succeed, make sure you also spend some time learning to fail - it is a critical component of your eventual success. With most product engineering moving to rapid development and release cycles, the ‘soft-skills’ are in fact the way you will likely experience, create, and deliver ‘work’ in the next decade. I hope you fail at lots of everyday efforts… and find amazing success as a result.