Failing Is Good

Failure is not falling down, but refusing to get up. – Chinese Proverb

School teaches us very quickly that you don’t want to fail. In school and at work, failure has consequences. But it also has benefits.

I wrote earlier about how important it is to know what you don’t know. That is not a lesson that comes early in life. Seeing the benefits of failing also takes some time. It also requires a setting where failing is not high stakes. That is why some teachers give practice tests and coaches have scrimmages.

I suspect that the best teachers (in and out of school) have failed and learned how to deal with it and therefore are more effective mentors to others. They can help others anticipate and avoid pitfalls, stay focused, and respond to challenges with creativity and optimism.

Failure can be a good teacher, though not always a kind teacher. Failure is humbling and it can motivate you to try again with greater effort.

I thought about failure after reading a story about a big, expensive high profile failure by an agency that doesn’t like to fail. The story was written by Marina Koren, a staff writer at The Atlantic.  The agency is NASA.

NASA had spent about two years on a project designed to burrow into the soil of Mars. Their spike-shaped, hammering probe is called the “mole” and it had been trying to burrow deeper on Mars than any other probe in order to measure heat flowing from within the planet.

Explorers like Mars. It used to be like our Earth a few billion years ago when it had lakes and rivers, a thick atmosphere, and clouds in the sky. Why Mars became a cold, barren world while Earth stayed warm and encouraged life is still not totally clear, and so we keep exploring.

The NASA team just couldn’t get it to work. After those two years, the team beamed up to the mole one last set of commands for a January attempt, but it was a no go. The probe was designed to burrow to about 16 feet (5 meters) below the surface. It seems that it went about 16 inches (40 centimeters). That is a failure.

The mole is part of the Insight overall mission which will continue, but the mole is done. So the mission is not a total failure. They learned something about the soil of Mars that prevented the mole from going deeper. It’s not what they set out to learn, but they did learn for next time.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” – Winston Churchill

A failure may not be an achievement but it can be beneficial in future attempts. Do a search on the benefits of failure and you will find many articles.

It is hard for most of us to overcome a lifetime of being told/taught/shown that failing is bad.  The Internet has a meme of “fail” or “epic fail” that accompanies photos, videos, or descriptions of people or things falling short of expectations.

I heard a podcast that referenced Sarah Lewis’ book The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery. I have not read the book yet, but it seems to be telling the stories of learning from failure through through the stories of artists and inventors like Samuel Morse and J.K. Rowling.

Human endeavors, especially of the creative kind, more often end in failure than success.

I’ve failed over and over and that is why I succeed. – Michael Jordan

Debbie Millman gave a nice graduation speech that was based on an essay titled “Fail Safe” from her collection Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design. She says that most of us “like to operate within our abilities.” When you step outside of that, you risk failure and we are risk-aversive when it involves the possibility of failing. To be able to embrace failure as a gift one needs to accept the power of surrender.

“Failing better” is an expression I’ve heard. Daniel Dennett has written about what he calls “intuition pumps” which are tools that he feels trigger thinking. He has 77 pumps and number one is “making mistakes.”

My son when he was young had a coach who only cared about winning. He said that a second-place finish was being “the best of the worst.” I hated that coach. I saw no benefit to his approach. I saw the harm he could do to the kids.

“Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be” – John Wooden

Psychologist Thomas Gilovich studied Olympic medal winners and found that silver medalists were far more frustrated with having lost than bronze medalists. The near-win was harder to take. Silver medalists are more likely to win the gold in their next Olympics. The “near win” failure pushes them to sharpen focus and try harder.

Another study found that people were far more frustrated about missing an airline flight by five minutes than by thirty minutes. Failing when you are so close is hard to accept.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison

A sentiment that you’ll hear from many writers and artists about their own work is seen in Duke Ellington’s answer to that too-often-asked question of “What is your favorite song of all those you have written?” He said it was always the next one waiting to be composed. That doesn’t mean he felt he had failed previously but that he had hope that the next one would be even better.

success despite failure examples

“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success. I’ve met people who don’t want to try for fear of failing.” – J.K. Rowling

Failures and setbacks can be clarifying. They can help you see where you went wrong.

Failure can inspire more creative solutions.  It is a redirection that shows you where you shouldn’t be.

 “Giving up is the only sure way to fail.” – Gena Showalter

I think it is key to turning failures into successes that you are operating in an environment that is tolerant of failure. Very little invention or innovation comes from one attempt. Fail early and often and iterate until you get it right is something some organizations say but sometimes don’t really believe.

Two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, won the Nobel Prize for work which explains why we are so averse to failure. They found that the effect of loss is twice as great as the gain from a win. A loss has a greater impact on us than a win and so humans naturally avoid a loss or a failure.

Though this might seem to negate the benefits of failure, it does not. I had listened to Michael Lewis’ book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, a few years ago which is about these two men. (listen to a conversation with Lewis about his book)  Their research may have been about “heuristics in judgment and decision-making” but it showed some common errors of the human psyche, and one of their points is about “loss aversion.” From their work, a key to success after failure is making more attempts and not quitting. The success and failure of businesses have much less to do with who runs the company and more to do with a natural statistic: failure of any kind is usually, that is to say statistically, followed by success.

Fai. Fail again. Fail better.

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” – Paulo Coelho


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Ken Ronkowitz

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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