Let’s not make a cult out of failure

If at first you don't succeed, failure may be your styleThere’s a brand new PandoDaily post that glorifies failure in a way that I think is totally unhealthy and misses the point of learning from failures and mistakes. The point isn’t to focus on the failure, the point is to *stop* failing so you can *start* being successful. Those are two different mindsets and “ways of being,” and one doesn’t necessarily lead into the other.

I disagree with the post and rather than point to my own life to start this post from Joe Kraus of Google Venture explains why success is more valuable than failure better than I ever could.

TL;DR Let’s not make a cult of failure for its own sake. The amazing part of the PandoDaily story is not the colossal fuck-up, but the fact that the marine succeeded once, make a massive mistake that tore down all his work, didn’t get in his own way and give up after the failure, and then went on to succeed once again. Had he not succeeded a second time, that initial mistake would have defined his entire life. That failure would have been the thing that he believed he was, not the success that he later became.

I had a mentor of mine suggest to me me over an early morning breakfast, “Austin, at some point you may ask yourself if it’s possible to stop ‘failing in exchange for knowledge,’ and actually succeed while simultaneously enjoying your work and learning twice as much as when you fail.”

That was a defining moment in my life and those words have rippled to where I sit now two years later. Until that moment, I thought that the only path to knowledge was called “failure.” I didn’t honestly believe people who were successful learned as much as people who failed.  I simply think that’s a lie we tell ourselves now to hedge failures. We learn more from success than we ever do from failure. We learn how to succeed. We should not be in denial about that fact.

I’m still on the journey, but with a lot of progress behind me since that breakfast. I tell the story of my mentor not to point to position myself as the “model for success,” but merely to share my own journey learning the difference in my own psychology between failing and succeeding. I’ve come to believe that success is life-affirming in a way that failure often isn’t. Failure is a reminder that we’re human and we should stay humble. Failure often reminds us of things we forgot along the way.

Other times, like the time I got laid off from a miserable consulting job in 2011, what might appear to be failure from one angle, is actually the best thing that ever happened to us because it opens up a new opportunity. However, in that case, the story isn’t really the failure, it’s the success you find later on. My story wasn’t about getting laid off, it was about starting my own consulting business, getting a contract with WP Engine, and then writing a job description and getting Jason Cohen to hire me. That’s the story I choose to remember. It makes me feel much better, and I don’t have time to walk around morose cause I lost what was, in most respects, a shitty job that would have been bad for my life. Turns out, the painful job wasn’t going to teach me as much as the one I have now, which I enjoy immensely.

Coming full-circle, I don’t intend to take away from the Pando article. It’s an incredible story of resilience, and the marine deserves credit and respect. I just want to reframe that the story isn’t about failure. It’s about someone who was so focused that he was able to overcome his own psychology in one of the hardest arenas on the planet, not once, but twice, and emerge victorious regardless of what anyone else might have predicted.

He’s a champion who knew better than to focus on “learning from failure.” He knew to leave his failure behind, but to never forget his rifle again.

Also posted on HackerNews.

Austin Gunter

I’m Austin. I live in San Francisco, practice Tai Chi, have rheumatoid arthritis, listen to a lot of loud music, and host a lot of dinner parties. Want more? Start here.

One comment

  • Oh, thank you so much for this. I did not read the Pando post, so I can comment only on yours, but the “cult of failure” is pervasive these days. I appreciate that a “celebration of failure” is an attempt to fight the risk-aversion that comes from companies that *punish* failure. But we’ve gone too far.

    Just a few issues with a focus on failure:

    * Failure is usually LESS likely to lead to useful results than success. From failure, you often end up with “infinity minus one”, where you now know what does NOT work, but may still be not much closer to discovering what *does*.

    * there is some evidence that in some aspects, a success (however small/incremental) triggers a different learning process in the brain than a failure.

    * the notion of “successive approximation” and “zone of proximal development” are based on learning through incremental success… Oh, this worked, let me try more of THAT.

    * A focus on what worked points you in a useful direction. A focus on what didn’t may not produce ANY usable imformation beyond “don’t do that again”

    * Just as a punished-for-failure culture produces stifling risk-aversion, the celebrate-failure culture encourages a more random, less rational approach. It’s encouraging a hits-based approach used by so many VCs and entertainment companies: it is a numbers game, so just put s*** out there fast and see what sticks. It discourages and dismisses that there are any other useful lessons to be applied beyond TRY THINGS, and puts the role of “luck” on a pedestal, giving it far more credit than it deserves.

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