This is part of my 5 Minute Concepts series, which is designed to help you understand fundamental concepts about subjects like learning, memory and competition in the shortest time possible. Each episode is available in video format on my YouTube channel and audio via my podcast. If you prefer to read, the transcript is below.
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Failure is a subject that I have a love-hate relationship with. On the one hand, failure is an important feedback mechanism that can drive learning. On the other hand, it’s been fetishized by the self-help crowd and turned into some glorious path to success.
Yes, it is true failures are inevitable and cannot be divorced from the expertise-gathering process. Everyone, even the best in the world in any given field, has experienced failure at one point or another along the way.
Sometimes a particular type of failure — usually some kind of dramatic departure from what you wanted to happen — can act as a beacon for a beneficial change that leads to a big win. That is a very real side of failure, and I don’t want to discount the value of failure in certain situations.
And yet there are all kinds of memes that lead people to view failure in the wrong light, or get used as a means of not doing the hard (but necessary) work of examining why they failed.
The most common meme around failure is the “Man in the arena” quote by Teddy Roosevelt. Now, I’m not knocking the quote — there’s a lot to be said for giving something a shot when others aren’t willing to — but I am knocking how it’s used as a means of hand-waving away failures.
Every time I see or hear someone using that quote, I want to ask that person, “Is failure always meaningful?” The hard truth is that it usually isn’t, and sometimes critical failures completely derail us. Sometimes that derailing is permanent.
It’s important to confront this uncomfortable truth head-on. There are, in fact, events in life that have serious consequences. There are situations where it’s not possible to recover from a failure, as much as we might want to play the role of the eternal optimist.
Why do we fail? More often than not, it’s because we underestimate the problem we’re trying to solve, and overestimate our ability to solve it. Or we don’t even understand the problem in the first place, and as a result we apply an inappropriate solution.
It’s common to lean too much on our own psychology as well. We think that belief or motivation alone are enough, when more often than not they’re only small, insignificant pieces of the puzzle.
We tend to have high opinions of ourselves, so it’s not so shocking that we step on landmines which could have been spotted if we had our egos a little more in check. When it becomes clear that failure is inevitable, we’re shocked at our own hubris — but alas, it’s too late.
After the fact, we’re prone to pointing fingers in the wrong directions. Not to say that there aren’t ever external factors to blame (I’m personally not a fan of the “absolutely everything is the fault of the individual” school of thought), but there are usually signs that mistakes were made ahead of time.
So, now that we have that dark side out of the way, when does failure help us instead of hurt us? What are the heuristics we can all use to figure out if we’re failing in the right direction, or just failing?
While there isn’t a simple algorithm for all situations, there are some guidelines you can use to make an educated guess.
First of all, ask yourself if said failure was unexpected. If it was, what kind of probability did you assign to it? If it wasn’t, what could you have done to stop it? Asking these questions will force you to confront your own estimations of yourself and what you were trying to accomplish.
Second, was something meaningful learned from the failure? It’s critical to be honest here — don’t just make up some sorry, generic phrase to describe the failure like “I learned that I have a long way to go.” That may be true, but you need to be specific — what actions led to this outcome? What could you have done differently?
Lastly, what’s your experience level in this domain? If you’re brand new, it’s normal to fail a ton, and it’s equally normal to learn quite a bit from each failure.
As your experience increases, you’ll hit diminishing returns on each failure because you should be collecting enough data to fix the biggest mistakes over time.
If you possess a deep level of expertise and you’re making big mistakes, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board. The world you’re in may have changed in some fundamental way, and you might have to rethink how you approach solving that set of problems.
You’ll never escape failure entirely — even the best still screw up sometimes — but you should see a decreasing frequency in the biggest failures if you’re learning the right way.
In general, it’s worth pondering the overall value of failure. In many cases it’s not helpful, despite what the gurus would lead you to believe. But it’s also a crucial part of any successful learning plan, especially for beginners.
You could say that failure is both underrated and overrated, it just depends on the nature of the failure itself and who it’s affecting. Think about that next time you hit a snag in your learning.