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Big Ideas

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.

Denial.

“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?

Comments (74)
  • John

    Im definately guilty of holding onto failures for way too long, thinking that something just needed more time, this year my thinking has changed a lot that i would now know when to move on and start something else, i think i recognise it more quickly now and dont go into denial.

  • Shantanu Sengupta

    Failures are the pillars for success. It’s better always to fail, but worse not to learn from it.

  • Jack Insomniac

    I’m already a believer in this concept, and I’m happy to see it reflected in this article. I first learned it from Tyler from Real Social Dynamics, another self-help company (it may not look like it at first, but his company is truly about nothing more than improving confidence, communication, expressing yourself in the most efficient way possible, and how to become and expert and gain first-hand-experience with a subject quickly.)

    Basically this whole idea can be summarized into one concept: “All failure is feedback.” Which means if you fail at something, it’s not proof that YOU yourself cannot do it, it’s just rejection to your approach and methodology of attacking the subject. Thomas Edison is an easy example of this idea. I think the story goes that he tried over 270 different materials to be used as filament for the lightbulb. In an interview he was asked why he persisted so long after failing 270 times. He said, “I didn’t fail 270 different times, I found 270 ways not to make a lightbulb.”

    If you take this concept and truly absorb it and live up to it, it means that anytime you reach any obstacle in life and you take action, no matter what happens there are only 2 possible outcomes: either you “succeeded” or you are “learning”. That’s your only options. In fact, the more you fail, the more you as Edison put it it, “find a way to not do it,” which gives you more experience, makes you more apt to recognize common pitfalls and train others better, and pushes you more towards expert/guru status for that subject.

    So for me, it effectively removes all fear of failure (and fear of constructive criticism). The only way you can possibly fail is by not taking action. Just be careful, some lessons can be fatal. 🙂

  • Larry

    As a personal development coach I am frequently having to deal with peoples frustrations at failing to achieve something. What is most startling is how many of them have tried maybe once, and already felt like giving up. I enjoy taking them throught he many stories i have collected of famous, successful people who have experienced a multitude of failures prior to their big break throughs. If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.

  • CY09Q2

    The position is valid until you start talking about software: the Internet is not really a very “safe space to fail”.

  • Preemptive Placebo

    People tend to think of “survival of the fittest” when they think of Darwinian evolution.  In fact, Darwin actually said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives.  It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” 

    An organism adapts to change only when forced to do so.  Human beings are remarkably resistant to change.  As Hardford points out, we resist because we are afraid to fail. 

    Practicing failure and practicing discomfort are the first two steps to strengthening one’s adaptability.  Through it we learn that looking stupid isn’t all that scarey.

  • Oprime

    Sounds a lot like Carol Dweck’s book, Mindet: The New Psychology of Success 

  • Oprime

    ..oops, *Mindset

  • K.M. Gibbs

    Prayer.

  • jkglei

    If you’re talking about a hard, packaged product release maybe so, but it seems like launching in “beta” has become a way to create a safe space to make mistakes on the Internet, no? Check out this 99% piece for more thoughts on that: http://the99percent.com/tips/6

  • jkglei

    Great point, PP.

  • Charlotte_Lucas

    Very easy to say.  No one wants to fail or be perceived as failing.  There are consequences.

  • Charlotte_Lucas

    Seems like an elegant variation on the theme of “Everything is Within Your Control.”  Not the economy, not your circumstances.  I’m not persuaded.

  • Sangimed

    Cool I like the subject

  • Jack Insomniac

    Bullshit, that’s your ego talking.
    I enjoy failing. Not succeeding at something on the first try means I’m learning, which leads to better understanding. Better understanding of a new tool, skill, or piece of equipment leads to better understanding of why what you’re doing isn’t working. Which leads to lessons in proficiency with that task.

    We all agree that more experience is better, right? The only way to gain a lot of experience quickly is to take massive action towards your goal. Everytime you slip and fall, study your failure and try to pull a lesson out of it, and just keep going. Each failure is an opportunity, I try to make the most out of them when they come around. The scientific method works extraordinarily well for pulling lessons out of first-hand experiences.

    In fact, the only time I’ve ever had trouble with this method is when other people observing my failure. The rest of the world doesn’t share the same view. You get a lot of criticism and judgement from people (or your boss) when you fail. This is why I’m in favor of the “create a safe space to experiment” idea in the article above.

    Note: This is a very aggressive method of attacking a subject. It’s a good idea to research the subject with people already experienced with it beforehand, to find out what lessons they’ve already learned. This is especially true when you’re about to attempt something that could be life-threatening (like learning to ride a motorcycle).

    The choice isn’t Success or Failure, your choice is Action or No Action. The only way to discover your potential is to test it.

  • mybuddies&aye

    It was very uplifting. Lots of people don’t have the time or the heart to admit when they are in the process or have failed. Its true that trial and error is great, but this is why people most people aren’t successful, b/c they are perfectionists that are afraid actually admitting to the fact that they have failed for the first time. Then they’d usually go and sulk and not give a damn about what happens after..Its a hard life, but if it weren’t it wouldn’t be worth anything

  • best writing service review

    I agree because if you will still pursue your work and doesn’t notice your failure then your work will be wasted. In fact, this little problem can mar your life as well. Thanks for the guidelines you give. It’s so helpful.

  • Mariano ☜═㋡

    Good point! ..here is my 2 cents about failure

    http://socialmediabar.com/why-

  • Mariano ☜═㋡

    If you are like me.. I bet you that ..

    …at one point in your life you’ll asked yourself:

    Why I Keep On Failing?

    I used to complicate things a lot! ..and life has thought me to simplify things; one of the “AHA” moments I had when I was trying to figure this shit out was:

    Holy shit!! I keep on failing because I see my life as a total failure!

    I looked at all the things I’ve done in the past and I never though all these experiences were actually education – NOT failure.

    Remember… you are now wiser, better and stronger.

    You now have insights you never had before and you will find the way..

    (trust your gut)

  • AmeryMueller

    Seems like an stylish difference on the concept of Everything is Within Your Management. Not the economic system, not your conditions.

  • Jake Kaskey

    I love this post. We are taught the opposite from an early age, but I luckily had parents who trusted me enough to create experiences in which I failed (early and often… ) and environments and situations where others forced me to not just recognize but also then fix the issues that caused me to fail in the first place. Great post- what I needed to hear today.

  • Dave Booth

    Failing is not an option for me see why at http://www.helpall.co.uk

  • Alex Andarakis

    Super article / extract and the issue that I have found out either the hard way for myself or through observing others is not just the ego, it is the sheer arrogance that the failure had nothing to do with the individual… Only when we know who and what we are, can we ever be comfortable enough in our own skin to understand and learn from others and our own shortcomings, and there lies the road to re-invention….

  • lahabti manal

    i feel self esteem after this article , i thought that the end of my life has started once i failed in med school , but after reading this i realised that this is just a way to do it , therefore thks ..

  • JamesMcNeal

    This stage must be experienced by businessmen. They must take it as a lesson for them to learn.

    Success Awareness

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