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Why Success Always Starts With Failure

The ego is the enemy of innovation. Economist Tim Harford explains why a complex world demands that we accept our mistakes and adapt rapidly.

“Few of our own failures are fatal,” economist and Financial Times columnist Tim Harford writes in his new book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure. This may be true, but we certainly don’t act like it. When our mistakes stare us in the face, we often find it so upsetting that we miss out on the primary benefit of failing (yes, benefit): the chance to get over our egos and come back with a stronger, smarter approach.

According to Adapt, “success comes through rapidly fixing our mistakes rather than getting things right first time.” To prove his point, Harford cites compelling examples innovation by trial-and-error from visionaries as varied as choreographer Twyla Tharp and US Forces Commander David Petraeus. I interviewed Harford over email to dig deeper into the counter-intuitive lessons of Adapt. What follows is a series of key takeaways on the psychology of failure and adaptation, combining insights from our conversation and the book itself.

The Wrong Way To React To Failure

When it comes to failing, our egos are our own worst enemies. As soon as things start going wrong, our defense mechanisms kick in, tempting us to do what we can to save face. Yet, these very normal reactions — denial, chasing your losses, and hedonic editing — wreak havoc on our ability to adapt.


“It seems to be the hardest thing in the world to admit we’ve made a mistake and try to put it right. It requires you to challenge a status quo of your own making.”

Chasing your losses.

We’re so anxious not to “draw a line under a decision we regret” that we end up causing still more damage while trying to erase it. For example, poker players who’ve just lost some money are primed to make riskier bets than they’d normally take, in a hasty attempt to win the lost money back and “erase” the mistake.

Hedonic editing.

When we engage in “hedonic editing,” we try to convince ourselves that the mistake doesn’t matter, bundling our losses with our gains or finding some way to reinterpret our failures as successes.

We’re so anxious not to “draw a line under a decision we regret” that we end up causing still more damage while trying to erase it.

The Recipe for Successful Adaptation

At the crux of Adapt lies this conviction: In a complex world, we must use an adaptive, experimental approach to succeed. Harford argues, “the more complex and elusive our problems are, the more effective trial and error becomes.” We can’t begin to predict whether our “great idea” will actually sink or swim once it’s out there.Harford outlines three principles for failing productively: You have to cast a wide net, “practice failing” in a safe space, and be primed to let go of your idea if you’ve missed the mark.

Try new things.

“Expose yourself to lots of different ideas and try lots of different approaches, on the grounds that failure is common.”

Experiment where failure is survivable.

“Look for experimental approaches where there’s lots to learn – projects with small downsides but bigger upsides. Too often we take on projects where the cost of failure is prohibitive, and just hope for the best.”

Recognize when you haven’t succeeded.

“The third principle is the easiest to state and the hardest to stick to: know when you’ve failed.”

The more complex and elusive our problems are, the more effective trial and error becomes.

How To Recognize Failure

This is the hard part. We’ve been trained that “persistence pays off,” so it feels wrong to cut our losses and label an idea a failure. But if you’re truly self-aware and listening closely after a “release” of your idea, you can’t go wrong. Being able to recognize a failure just means that you’ll be able to re-cast it into something more likely to succeed.

Gather feedback.

“Above all, feedback is essential for determining which experiments have succeeded and which have failed. Get advice, not just from one person, but from several.” Some professions have build-in feedback: reviews if you’re in the arts, sales and analytics if you release a web product, comments if you’re a blogger. If the feedback is harsh, be objective, “take the venom out,” and dig out the real advice.

Remove emotions from the equation.

“It’s important to be dispassionate: forget whether you’re ahead or behind, and try to look at the likely costs and benefits of continuing from when you are.”

Don’t get too attached to your plan.

“There’s nothing wrong with a plan, but remember Von Moltke’s famous dictum that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. The danger is a plan that seduces us into thinking failure is impossible and adaptation is unnecessary – a kind of ‘Titanic’ plan, unsinkable (until it hits the iceberg).”

Being able to recognize a failure just means that you’ll be able to re-cast it into something more likely to succeed.

Creating Safe Spaces to Fail

Twyla Tharp says, “The best failures are the private ones you commit in the confines of your own room, with no strangers watching.” She rises as 5:30 AM and videotapes herself freestyling for 3 hours each morning, happy if she extracts just 30 seconds of usable material from the whole tape. This is a great example of a “safe space to fail.” But many of us don’t have this luxury of time or freedom. So how do we create this space?

Practice disciplined pluralism.

Markets work by this process, encouraging the exploration of many new ideas as well as the ruthless weeding out of the ones that fall short. “Pluralism works because life is not worth living without new experiences.” Try a lot of things, and commit only to what’s working.

Finding “a safe space to fail is a state of mind.”

Assuming that you don’t operate a nuclear power plant for a living, you can probably infuse a bit more freedom and flexibility into your workday. Give yourself permission to test out a few off-the-wall ideas mixed in with the by-the-book ideas.

Imitate the college experience.

“College is an amazing safe space to fail. We are experimenting with new friends, a new city, new hobbies and new ideas – and we’ll often mess up academically and socially as a result. But we know that as long as we don’t screw up too dramatically, we’ll finish college, graduate, and move on – that mix of risk and safety is intoxicating. Yet somehow as we grow older we lose it.” —

What’s Your Take?

Do you think that trial and error is the most effective approach for innovation? What are your tips for surviving failure?

More Posts by Sarah Rapp

Comments (74)
  • Landon Satterfield

    I have to agree that I need to do this more often.

    In my work, I’ll carry out an idea till I kill it. It’s not thatthe idea isn’t good; it just may not be great.

    I often don’t have the “time” to fail, but I don’t let this
    happen outside of work either. I therefore don’t have
    enough practice in realizing a failure and implementing
    a new idea before the first falls though.

    I’ll use this advice in my current project. I sense a failure,
    so I’ll shake it up a little! Thanks for posting this!

  • Pete R.

    Very inspirational. Really like this quote: “Pluralism works because life is not worth living without new experiences.” 

    I myself still couldn’t shake off the habit of denial. Most denial I’ve done was when the failure is no longer a private matter. It’s easy to accept failure in private, but once the failure is obvious to everyone around you, it’s very hard to accept it.

  • Mary Ellen Coumerilh

    I’ve noticed that when it comes to new ideas and innovation, often timing is everything.  Sometimes the failure of an idea is due to timing.  Creative people will be served well by recognizing that an idea may be a good one but needs to be put on the back burner until the optimum time arrives.  Trial and error lends itself to building this skill.  

  • LindaInPhoenix

    I’m looking forward to reading this book!  I teach my students that they need to fail hard and fail often in order to learn the resiliency and persistency they need to develop an entrepreneurial approach to artmaking.  Read more at http://creativeinfrastructure….

  • Steffen Lentz

    Going forward in iterations is the most natural (and only possible) way to solve any kind of problems. It’s the way to deal with missing knowledge.
    At the beginning you don’t know what the solution is, e.g. how an idea is successfully implemented (if you knew it, it wouldn’t be a problem). So you take one step, try it out and get feedback. May be the step was in the right direction, may be you failed. In any case you learn and you adapt, so your next step will bring you even closer to a good solution. Not only accepting, but actually utilizing this is a booster for productivity.

  • Deborah Richards

    Bob Dylan said it all in Love Minus Zero no Limit ”There’s no success like failure and failure’s no success at all” and for all my adult life this dynamic has proved a right if challenging truism.  To acknowledge both horns is actually to evolve into a balanced and resilient personality.  

  • Javed

    be honest and to become sucessful, change your platform preferably in higher gear.
    As Holy QURAN said, in chapter JOSEPH, that we have kept for every knowledgeable person we have kept another better knowledgeable person(to improve your life).

  • E Reamico

    Should there be a ‘I couldn’t agree more’ button here?

  • George Beckingham

    I’m still very new in the world of self-marketing and small-scale manufacturing, but so far I’ve found it valuable to build a social network with your customers, testers, fans, and followers. Invite them into your world and make it part of theirs. When you fail, explain what happened, and how you’re going to change things to make it better for your public. Having a well-developed social network allows you to experiment with products. If people believe in what you’re producing, they’ll be willing to help you develop it.

  • Sarah Dale

    Looks like a very interesting book – looking fwd to reading.
    I guess I would say this as a psychologist – but I think coaching is often about helping people to deal with failure and develop experiments to try doing things in a different way – which helps to keep a good perspective and develop resilience.
    Sarah (author of Keeping Your Spirits Up)

  • jenny

    Wow this definitely got me going this morning!

  • Neil Patel

    This makes total sense and great read I will be passing this link onto friends and co-workers.

  • Mike Cook

    Thanks for the great info/advice… I like doing a quick autopsy on any failure, find out what went wrong, learn from it, move on to the next while incorporating what was learned.

  • Corporate photographer

    Brilliant concept – its not the falling down that matters – its the getting up again.

  • goAugmented

    Amen – we learn this the most with Augmented Reality ideas – not only a new technology, but a new revolution of thought, so many, many near misses 🙂 before we hit some great ideas. 

  • Poulsen

    Dalai Lama’s rule nr. 2 in his “instructions for life”:

    When you lose, dont lose the lesson

  • Yazan Hijazi

    Accepting our failures is like foul medicine it’s good for you but you really don’t want to drink it. Great read, I would add that our educational institutions play a big role in stigmatizing failure, they tend to approach success as a one time hit or miss deal. We must create the space and proper context to fail and learn. Fail often, cheap, fast, and don’t forget the lesson!

  • Narasimharaojvl

    This is a wonderful article on failure and success meanins learning from the mistakes and rising every time you fall

  • Nadine

    Powerful article! A life without lessons and failure, is certainly a life without experience. “he who feels he has no more to learn, has no more to gain”.  I’m going home to share this with my 18 year old son who is at a crossroads about his future! Fantastic read, thanks for this.

  • JSLCreative - Jeff

    Lets all hope that we can fail in a place where it is excepted. The fact is that in college the expense of failure is yours alone, so are the gains from that failure. However in the workplace rarely is it only your expense, often it is your employers expense as well. I’d like to add an idea to learning from failure, multiple minds failing together often will yeild a sort of Voltron force of great ideas, one of which could be a true innovation.

  • Mikhail Priemyshev

    great article!

    на ошибках учаться!

  • Dave Charbonneau

    Enjoyed the article and am posting to FB & Twitter. Thanks! -DC

  • Phil Drolet

    As I wrote in a recent blogpost, “There was never any fear for me, no fear of failure. If i
    miss a shot, so what? I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career,
    I’ve lost more than 300 games, 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the
    game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over in my life, and
    that’s why I succeed.” –Michael Jordan

    Managing failure is crucial, but it all comes down to removing that the fear of failure. For those interested in improving that aspect of “failure management”, check out my post to learn more on to how master that fear. http://www.thefeelgoodlifestyl

  • Sara Amrhein

    Certainly makes me feel a whole lot better, sometimes I feel like I’m just plain crazy to think that this idea could possibly work! 

  • Garret Steider

    Very insightful post. It definitely made me take a look at myself because I HATE failure.

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