With permission, this is an amazing post by Alasdair Lloyd-Jones, a top-notch strategist and all-around great guy. You should check out his blog. He writes wonderfully and thoroughly (with references!). He never fails to get me thinking or feeling. I even stole his title which he borrowed from JK Rowling.
Failure is one of those subjects that in my mind has a disproportionate level of coverage versus its opposition – success, which is why I chose to try to understand it better.
Why do we fear it? Why do others say that we are letting ourselves down by not experiencing it? Why is the subject of failure treated with broad brush strokes when its presence is often one of complexity?
What I want to cover in this not so pithy post is the subject of failure, why it’s good for us, how people cope with it or not, methods for learning from it, and arguments that suggest that failure alone should not be our north star for learning and development.
The title of this piece comes from JK Rowling’s commencement address at Harvard. She states “You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” It’s a clear call for pushing oneself to the edge of anything you pursue and dealing with failure as one of the possible consequences. JK Rowling’s speech offers many interesting aspects on the benefits of failure, which I’ll come on to later.
In the meantime, Evan Schwartz, in his book Juice: The Creative Fuel That Drives World-Class Inventors, makes a good point about the generality of failure offering up a multitude of possible reactions to failure. “Sometimes, failure tells you to give up and do something else entirely. Other times, it tells you to try a different approach, a new route to the top of the mountain. Or it may tell you to make a detour. Sometimes, it tells you that you need help. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem to tell you anything.”
This last point is an important one as Lane Wallace states after querying her own experience of failure “I haven’t figured out yet whether I get to learn something from this, or if I just get to feel bad for a while.” It’s probably best to consider that there are going to be times when you just don’t learn anything. Failure ‘s discomfort can result in us wanting to run away from it as fast as possible but I would argue that failure forces feelings that help us develop “Even his griefs are a joy long after to one that remembers all that he wrought and endured.” Homer. As we will see later these feelings play a critical role in our ability to learn from the experience.
In an age of technology and engineering being the darling children of innovation, there’s a strong cultural thermal around embracing failure. Across many of the articles and studies I read, there were continual pleas for it.
“One of the things that distinguishes American culture from others is our passionate belief in second acts.” Rich Karlgaard, Publisher Forbes Magazine, makes the case to think beyond the failure itself. To move on.
However, most of us are not engineers and to be mean and opportunistic, I thought I would use a quote from Jimmy Buffet to make a point “Even the best navigators don’t know for sure where they’re going until they get there” To me this emphasizes the idea of a journey because for most of us it’s not tinkering that gets us to success but a journey that we have to contend with. (Not sure yet if this could be a criticism of Steven Johnson’s book).
To conclude thus far, I would argue we should embrace the experience of failure but also recognize that the majority of us need help in understanding how to identify failure and how to learn from it when it’s happening.
I’M NOT WORKING WITH AN ON/OFF SWITCH
“I’ll never forget it,” says Linda Stone – a former apple employee – on overhearing a conversation between two well known inventors, Steve Wozniak and Dean Kamen. “They just were talking about all their failures, and how they both felt like failures. It was like they were bragging about various laboratory fiascoes and catastrophes. Every failure to them was a learning experience.”
Thomas Edison is famously reported to have tried over a thousand light bulb designs before finding one that worked.
I get why engineers and their stories are often used as the context for embracing failure because the stories are simple, the repercussions are immediate and the solutions are invariably found to create a happy ending. Such subjects in the field of management are far more complex and in truth, this is where we need to see the embracing of failure most. Not just because of the need for greater openness and creativity but because the EQ factor of failure in management is still young and untrained. I would argue that management is the least capable at handling failure, reacting to it and learning from it.
As Bob Sutton rightly asks “What can leaders do while bad things are happening so that learning and desirable change happens in the organization? After all, bad times and crises often arise in organizations, and go on for substantial stretches, placing pressure on leaders to make the best out of a bad situation as it unfolds (not just after it’s over).” It’s not easy for management to see where the failure is occurring and there needs to be more help in this territory going forward.
What I can offer is a great study by Alan Meyer, written in 1982 – Adapting to Environmental Jolts – published in the Administrative Science Quarterly, which offers a really interesting suggestion on how best to deal with the threat of failure and in particular how you react to it.
“After a major malpractice insurer abruptly terminated malpractice for 4,000 northern California doctors and told them that new insurance would come with a 400% increase in premiums, anesthesiologists went on a one-month strike in 1975 against doing any elective surgery. This caused an immediate and drastic drop in hospital admissions and cash flow.” Meyer uncovered many nuances among 19 hospitals he analyzed but concluded “those hospitals that survived the strike best had leaders who consistently interpreted it as an opportunity rather than a threat. For example: one hospital tested a ‘no layoff policy’ which resulted in increased staff loyalty. Another saw it as a chance to do deep layoffs that it had believed were necessary for years and after the strike, administrators believed taking this opportunity gave them license to make changes that likely staved off an otherwise inevitable bankruptcy. Other hospitals viewed the strike as an opportunity to devote resources to attract nonsurgical patients, which not only helped them endure the strike but also left them with greater income after the strike was over. Less successful hospitals framed the strike as a debilitating threat, making no attempts to act.” [Resulting in their failure to survive.]
Bob Sutton refers to Meyer’s research in his post on failure “Meyer’s research shows that whether a challenge is framed as an opportunity or a threat has a huge effect on how people respond. The opportunity frame leads to far more adaptive behavior and learning than the ‘threat’ frame.”
It sounds obvious but being on the front foot with the threat of failure is a must for those who want to learn, adapt and move on.
How we approach failure is one thing but according to a number of research studies, how we react to it plays a critical role in future development.
According to Dean A. Shepherd’s excellent book Managing Emotions to Learn From Failure, there are three typical reactions to failure: 1). The emotional pain is so great for the person experiencing failure that they give up and do not try again. 2). The person responsible for the failure blames others not themselves and they throw themselves in to the next project without learning the reasons for the project’s failure and is therefore destined to make the same mistakes repeatedly. 3). The person manages the emotions generated by the project failure so that they are less painful, occur for a shorter period, and no longer keep them from learning from the failure.
The experience can cover a multitude of emotions. As Shepherd offers when talking of his father’s experience when his own business crashed “There was numbness and disbelief that this business he created and managed for all those years was gone. There was some anger toward the economy, competitors, and creditors. Stronger emotions than anger were guilt and self-blame. He felt guilty that he had caused a failure; guilty that the business could no longer be passed on to my brother; and guilty that he not only failed as a businessman, but felt that he had failed as a father. All this caused him great distress and anxiety, which in turn caused the rest of the family great distress and anxiety.”
The pain of failure or just the sheer embarrassment and shame of it can leave you wondering why you would want to dwell on it but I want to use this opportunity to argue for two points. First, it can be liberating “I’m not going to stand here and tell you failure is fun”, says JK Rowling in her commencement address, “that period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
Second, if you deal with it in the right frame of mind, it can be hugely beneficial. The emphasis here is on being in the right frame of mind. I feel like beating my chest with untold enthusiasm when I hear the likes of Linda Stone, ex employee at Apple, offer up the perspective “Every failure should be seen as a part of progress.” but if we are simply embracing failure and not understanding how to deal with it in a constructive way, then surely we are gaining nothing.
Which is why I give credence to Dean A. Shepherd’s work in this area because he has proven that reactions do affect our response to failure but he also offers up solutions to avoid succumbing to the natural emotional reactions we contend with. “Learning from failure is not instantaneous; it requires time. It is not automatic; it requires a process that can be managed such that learning from failure can be maximized.”
He starts with an example to illustrate the right and wrong way to deal with failure, which I paraphrase here. “[Paraphrasing] Two colleagues pitch for business both knowing that only 1 in 5 pitches are successful in their company. Both pitches are failures. Both colleagues immediately react in a similar way with high emotions and high rejection of the feedback. Later, colleague number one once settling down after the news, comes back to review comments offered by the company she failed to win and from her boss and on the next occasion, she reflected the feedback in her next pitch and she won it. Colleague number two, just moved on and never reviewed the feedback. He failed to win future business and was eventually let go.”
Importantly, two thoughts come to mind for me here: First, there’s a right time to review feedback and it’s not straight after rejection because your mind is not in the right state then. Second, make sure to use this time to ensure you get all the feedback you need for future review.
Shepherd’s perspective is also born out in research “In laboratory experiments. negative emotions have been found to interfere with an individual’s allocation of attention in processing information. Such interference diminishes our ability to learn from the failure event. Negative emotional aspects of an event receive higher priority in processing information than positive or neutral emotional aspects. The emotional interference means that we prematurely terminate in working memory the facts that proceeded the emotional event. For example, in focusing on the emotional events leading up to the failure, our mind keeps shifting to the day the project was terminated. We dwell on the announcement to employees, buyers, suppliers, neighbors; how bad everyone felt; the moment of handing over the office keys to the liquidator and leaving the parking lot for the last time. By focusing on these highly salient, emotional events, we do not allocate attention to information that would serve as important feedback for learning. Insufficient attention (and subsequently, diminished information processing capacity) is paid to the actions and inactions that caused the deterioration in performance and ultimately the project’s failure.”
The bottom line is that “We enhance our learning when we manage our emotions and recover from our emotional pain more quickly.”
LEARNING FROM THE EXPERIENCE
“Do we actually learn from failures and use that knowledge to reap future success?” As Lane Wallace rightly points out, ” The statistics on second marriages are not encouraging.”
According to Paul A. Gompers, Professor at Harvard Business School and the lead researcher in a Harvard Business School study who looked at the success rates of entrepreneurs, found in his study that “For the average entrepreneur who failed, no learning happened.”
Shepherd’s study suggests a balanced world of those who learn and those who don’t but I suspect that people trip up all too quickly on one of the many areas of obfuscation offered above – blaming; ignoring it as if it’s a negative voice whispering in your ear trying to spoil your chance of future success; the list goes on. What’s clear is that Lane Wallace’s perspective is spot on “Learning from failure has two important dimensions: First is learning from failure itself, in the sense that it can lead to better iterations, ideas, or directions, and therefore increase your chances of success down the line. The second dimension is learning to cope with the fact of failure itself.”
ARE WE WASTING OUR TIME FOCUSING ON FAILURE?
The recent Harvard Business School study referred to above looks at the success rate of entrepreneurs to what difference previous success (failure) made on subsequent start-up ventures, offers up two key statistics that indicate greater learning comes from success rather than failure. “A previously successful entrepreneur with an experienced/successful VC experienced a 32.4% success rate second time around Vs an entrepreneur after failure if paired with an equal experienced/successful VC 25.9%.”
As Jason F. from 37 Signals argues passionately “I don’t understand the cultural fascination with failure being the source of great lessons to be learned. What did you learn? You learned what didn’t work. Now you won’t make the same mistake twice, but you’re just as likely to make a different mistake next time. You might know what won’t work, but you still don’t know what will work. That’s not much of a lesson.” He then goes on to offer some good guidance on a different approach to learning. “Instead, put most of your energy into studying your successes. What have you done right? What worked? Why did it work? How you can repeat it?” He then concludes with this passioned plea ” Instead of making something worse a little better, how about making something good a little better? Don’t spend so much time looking down. Look up more.”
Jason’s plea makes complete sense but I would argue that it doesn’t have to be so black and white. In fact whether you finish with a success or failure, learning can be rich in both experiences and invariably both are touched during the journey to your objective. As Randy Komisar – Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers – a leading Silicon valley VC firm – states, “Research shows that the number of businesses who succeed with Plan B versus Plan A appears large suggesting that an iterative approach to combatting failure is present among successful entrepreneurs.” In other words let’s not create a pattern of response that’s simply based on the outcome but let’s look at the stages of the journey and ensure we capture the experiences good and bad, along the way.
The context of reviewing these experiences also has an effect on how we learn. According to some very insightful research from Tel Aviv University’s study by Schmuel Ellis, which appeared in the Journal of Applied Psychology, they carried out a field experiment with two companies of soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. They were tested for their performance on navigation exercises. “The critical difference between the two groups was that – following standard practice in the Israeli military – the first company had a series of after event reviews during four days of navigation exercises that focused only on the mistakes the soldiers made, and how to correct them. The second company, in its after event discussions, focused on what could be learned from both their successes and failures. The results showed that: 1). Soldiers who discussed both successes and failures learned at higher rates than soldiers who discussed just failures. 2). Soldiers in the group that discussed both successes and failures appeared to learn faster because they developed ‘richer mental models’ of their experiences than soldiers who only discussed failures.”
Interestingly in later research, they found that experiencing failure does lead to richer mental models than experiencing success. Schmuel Ellis concludes that “after people succeed at a task, they learn the most when they think about what went wrong. After people succeed at something, it is especially important to have them focus on what things went wrong. They learn more than if they just focus on success.” It seems counter intuitive and I’m sure those pushing the case for Positive Psychology will flinch at my suggestion here but it appears some level of negativity provides a richer foundation for learning.
Of course this research has been countered already. Researchers at MIT’s Picower Institute looked at neuron reactions to correct and incorrect answers, monitoring neurons in the monkey’s prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia – two areas of the brain thought to be involved in learning. They found “these neurons actually became more ‘finely tuned’ after a correct response than after an incorrect response. ‘When the animal had a failure, there was virtually no change in neural processing, the neurons didn’t improve at all.” This research was carried out very recently and is very limited in its robustness, so care should be taken with it. I thought about excluding it but given the potential ramifications of these findings, it seems at least prudent for our antennas to be alert to future findings in this area.
For now, I’m sticking with the view that we should learn from the successes and failures experienced along the way and pay very good attention to the data capture of the experience throughout the journey. This way, the learning is maximized.
Lane Wallace says it better than me. “Anyone setting out on unchartered territory can’t know what they will encounter along the way, or where they will eventually end up – even if they have a clear direction of goal at the start. Which is why a central key to success, for any explorer, is learning to recognize wrong turns or mistakes, learn from them, and adjust course accordingly: Navigate, Evaluate and Innovate.”
I hope this piece will provoke some thoughts on your actions going forward. I have to admit , I’m surprised that I couldn’t find any coverage on an issue I have experienced in people, which is the incredible ability to vaporize every failure as if it never happened. I don’t know how to help those who act this way but one thing’s for sure, they will be left behind when others evolve through the experience.
Failure appears in multiple guises – big and small – and dealing with it along the way makes us stronger. Randy Komisar touches on the appeal of those who have experienced failure “I like to back entrepreneurs who have succeeded, for the right reasons, but also have failed once or more along the way. That way I know they have the resiliency and flexibility to find success amongst the failures.”
I would like to end by offering up two thoughts: one from David Kelley, Founder d.school, Stanford, which for me is a reminder to go out and have fun “If you are making the same mistakes again and again, you aren’t learning anything. If you keep making new and different mistakes, that means you are doing new things and learning new things.” The other is from Bob Sutton, Professor of Management Science and Engineering and Organizational Behavior at Stanford, who sums up the potential feeling and benefits best “Failure sucks, but instructs.” After sitting this subject for a while, I would change this slightly to make sense of what I’ve learnt but ruin the poetry of his thought: Failure sucks, success rocks but both should instruct.
1. JK.Rowling – Author – Commencement Address at Harvard
2. Evan Schwartz – Author – Juice: The Creative Fuel That Drives World-Class Inventors
3. Randy Komisar – Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers – a leading Silicon valley VC firm
4. Lane Wallace – Writer, Adventurer, Speaker and Blogger
5. Dean A. Shepherd – Author – Managing Emotions to Learn From Failure
6. Bob Sutton – Professor of Management Science and Engineering and Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford
7. Shmuel Ellis – Professor, Tel Aviv University – Journal of Applied Psychology
8. Alan Meyer – Adapting to Environmental Jolts, Administrative Science Quarterly (1982)
9. David Kelley – Founder, d.School, Stanford
10. MIT Picower Institute
11. Rich Karlgaard – Publisher, Forbes Magazine
12. Linda Stone – past employee of both Apple and Microsoft
13. Jimmy Buffett – Musician
14. Paul A. Gompers – Professor at Harvard Business School
15. Jason F. 37Signals