On failure


in Daily updates

Here’s a hypothesis I have been trying out lately:

If you aren’t failing and getting rejected a lot, you aren’t being ambitious enough.

It’s a point of view that helps keep a person going when they are applying for job after job, with no interviews so far. It could also be of some comfort to those who had solo Valentine’s Days.

And, it might even be true, to boot! If we are going to expand ourselves as people, we need to do things which we feel uncomfortable about: give lectures to more people than we feel at ease with, play Starcraft II (or your piano) at a higher level of difficulty than you feel comfortable with, take on an ambitious project, submit work to journals that might reject it, give an honest answer to a challenging question in hopes that it will be well received…

Depending on the field of endeavour, it seems fair to say that you should be failing 90% of the time – with ‘failing’ meaning that you think in retrospect that you could have done something better, in undertaking whatever you just did (whether you succeeded or failed). If more than 10% of your attempts are going off absolutely perfectly, you should probably try something more challenging.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

oleh February 26, 2011 at 3:54 am

“failing’ meaning that you think in retrospect that you could have done something better”

For me, this is much too harsh or broad a definition of failure. I agree that probably much of the time , perhaps 90%, you can look back in retrospect that there was something you could do better. But I do not define that as failure. Also the word “failure” lessens motivation.

Tristan February 26, 2011 at 9:52 am

The proportion of time one should aim to fail depends on the social costs of appearing as a failure. However, there are costs to the individual of setting these social costs too high – for instance, our schools destroy creativity (and intelligence) by making “a mistake” the worst thing you can do. If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t learning.

However, failure connotes a mistake made in a situation where it was important to get something right. For instance, I might fail to be there in someone’s time of need. That’s a “mistake” – but a mistake that really hurts someone.

In situations where the costs of mistakes are low, our reach should exceed our grasp and we should make lots of mistakes. In situations, however, where the costs of mistakes are high, we really should try to succeed, and even limit our attempts to reduce possibility of catastrophic failure.

I think what’s deeply true, however, and that you are getting to in this argument, is that we should transform ourselves to reduce the personal psychological cost of mistakes, or simply accept those costs as worthwhile. Personally, I think I’d be much farther ahead if I were less afraid of the subjective aspects of failure.

Milan February 26, 2011 at 12:10 pm

You’re right that this perspective is inappropriate in areas where the costs of failure are extreme, like safe airplane operation or surgery.

I meant for it to apply in ordinary activities that are highly competitive, like sports, dating, scholarship applications, job hunting, entrepreneurship, etc. Those are probably the spheres in which most people fear (and experience) failure most, and they probably shouldn’t be so concerned about it.

zoom February 26, 2011 at 3:02 pm

I can’t get a job interview no matter what I do. I can’t afford to stop trying, but jeez, it’s getting discouraging.

alena February 26, 2011 at 3:58 pm

I think that in our world, we focus too much on “failure” and that concept makes it hard for many people to ever feel like they can succeed. If some of the most intelligent and educated people cannot find work or feel that they have succeeded in their job, how must the rest of the world feel? How can disabled people feel success if our standards are so high? What about a personal best, or a different kind of achievement? I would rather focus on every small victory than a failure unless it has harmed someone and in that case, I would try to make amends. I also think that it will be much harder to “succeed” for young people today than it was for our generation, unless the definition of success is expanded. You are perfect in many ways already.

. March 6, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Study after study has shown that people who function well under stress share several core beliefs: They tend to see times of change and uncertainty not as dangerous but as exciting opportunities; they focus on what they can do to improve a stressful situation, rather than growing helpless; and they maintain a sense of commitment to the world around them, instead of withdrawing. Some people are simply born with these attitudes, but psychologists have demonstrated that they can be learned as well. One of them, University of California-Irvine’s Salvatore Maddi, says kids who complete his “hardiness” course—in which students learn new coping behaviors and beliefs about stress—earn higher GPAs than those who don’t. The U.S. Army is such a believer in these classes that it now puts all of its 1.1 million soldiers through its own stress resilience course.

And finally, we arrive at what may be the most crucial ingredient in composure, an idea that is simple to understand but tricky to master. In all of the hours I spent researching Nerve, I almost never came across a case in which a cool-headed hero didn’t feel afraid; the vast majority dealt with plenty of fear, just like Russell and Olivier. What truly separated them from the pack was this: While many who fizzle under fire battle against anxiety and vilify their nerves, these poised people understand that fear doesn’t have to hold them back—it can even help them. This switch to a friendlier view of fear is more than mere sleight of hand. Studies of everyone from classical musicians to competitive swimmers have found no difference at all between elites and novices in the intensity of their pre-performance anxiety; the poised, top-flight performers, however, were far more likely to describe their fear as an aid to success than the nonelites. No matter what skill we’re trying to improve under pressure—working on deadline, public speaking, staying cool on a first date—learning to work with fear instead of against it is a transformative shift.

Milan March 8, 2011 at 2:01 pm

As an elaboration of the post above, it is probably sensible to note that if you find yourself never succeeding in your undertakings, you should probably try something less competitive.

It is wise not to get disheartened too easily, but it is foolish to ignore a persistent pattern of behaviours and outcomes.

. March 8, 2011 at 5:32 pm

Need for Achievement (N-Ach) refers to an individual’s desire for significant accomplishment, mastering of skills, control, or high standards. The term was first used by Henry Murray in “Explorations in Personality” (1938) and associated with a range of actions. These include: “intense, prolonged and repeated efforts to accomplish something difficult. To work with singleness of purpose towards a high and distant goal. To have the determination to win” (p164). The concept of NAch was subsequently popularised by the psychologist David McClelland.[citation needed]

Need for Achievement is related to the difficulty of tasks people choose to undertake. Those with low N-Ach may choose very easy tasks, in order to minimise risk of failure, or highly difficult tasks, such that a failure would not be embarrassing. Those with high N-Ach tend to choose moderately difficult tasks, feeling that they are challenging, but within reach.

dot April 26, 2011 at 6:33 pm
. May 2, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Fail often, fail well
Companies have a great deal to learn from failure—provided they manage it successfully

Apr 14th 2011 | from the print edition

BUSINESS writers have always worshipped at the altar of success. Tom Peters turned himself into a superstar with “In Search of Excellence”. Stephen Covey has sold more than 15m copies of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. Malcolm Gladwell cleverly subtitled his third book, “Outliers”, “The Story of Success”. This success-fetish makes the latest management fashion all the more remarkable. The April issue of the Harvard Business Review is devoted to failure, featuring among other contributors A.G. Lafley, a successful ex-boss of Procter & Gamble (P&G), proclaiming that “we learn much more from failure than we do from success.” The current British edition of Wired magazine has “Fail! Fast. Then succeed. What European business needs to learn from Silicon Valley” on its cover. IDEO, a consultancy, has coined the slogan “Fail often in order to succeed sooner”.

There are good reasons for the failure fashion. Success and failure are not polar opposites: you often need to endure the second to enjoy the first. Failure can indeed be a better teacher than success. It can also be a sign of creativity. The best way to avoid short-term failure is to keep churning out the same old products, though in the long term this may spell your doom. Businesses cannot invent the future—their own future—without taking risks.

dp March 1, 2012 at 8:47 pm

The trouble with getting rejected so often is that it can become easy to be caught up in a feeling of mediocrity. The brain can be better at counting the simple number of wins and losses than at rating them according to difficulty.

. March 8, 2012 at 11:02 am

What Jobs Taught Me About the Value of Failure

Oct 10, 2011 1:00 AM EDT

Stay hungry. Stay foolish. Take risks. And whatever you do, don’t be afraid to fall.

On a sunny California morning in June 2005, my friends and I ran into the Stanford stadium for graduation. As part of the university’s irreverent “wacky walk,” we’d decorated our regalia with green inner tubes, floppy sombreros, and Mardi Gras beads. On the grass, we waved to our parents, brandished squirt guns, and batted beach balls around.

We were ready to be proud of finishing college and stepping out into adulthood. We were ready to celebrate our accomplishment—the first, we believed, of many to come. We were ready to hear about the great future that lay ahead.

We were not ready for Steve Jobs’s speech.

. March 8, 2012 at 11:03 am

“We all live to ‘find our place’ or ‘make our mark’ as members of a surviving community. Even our most individualized and privatized of cultures has not lessened this imperative. One can argue, on the contrary, that it has increased its intensity by throwing the whole force of psychic vulnerability upon each isolated self. In this atmosphere, competitiveness is less a license for free expression than a social demand to validate one’s being, each against all.”

Ericson, Edward. “Humanism and the Tradition of Dissent.Humanism Today

anon May 28, 2017 at 8:28 pm

This is an awfully privileged point of view. Above all else, being privileged means being able to fail without severe consequences. People who are down and out can’t afford to have anything major go wrong, and so they must allot the greater part of their effort to avoiding failure instead of chasing success.

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