Culturally, we are obsessed with failure.
A quick search on the term “failure” returns “Why Success Always Starts with Failure,” “Strategies from Learning from Failure,” and “The Gift of Failure.”
But is failure really a gift?
In Tribe of Mentors, Ben Silberman, co-founder and CEO of Pinterest argues:
“Whenever you want to learn how to do something well, you start by studying people who are really good. You don’t study all the failed sprinters to learn how to run fast; you study the person who’s really fast.”
After a failure, post-mortem analyses and retrospectives may encourage introspection, optimization, and new learnings. But they might not have been necessary if instead:
1. You hadn’t failed
2. You had asked those who achieved success how they did it before you started
That’s not to say that we should avoid failure — that’s impossible, and that kind of attitude will dampen risk-taking and creativity.
We just shouldn’t seek failure out as a means of succeeding. Logically, to find success, we must look for success. — Click to Tweet
And more importantly, we must avoid celebrating failure as a means of hiding from our real mistake: starting from scratch and going it alone instead of seeking out knowledge and experience from those who have used both to achieve success.
Does Failure Engender Success?
Learning from failure helps us feel better about failing.
It provides us with a coping mechanism for an experience that is naturally unpleasant. It gives us the hope that we can live to see another day, transforms a loss into a gain, and increases our resilience as we imagine possible future failures.
But does failure lead to material business success?
As Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson pointed out in Rework:
“Already-successful entrepreneurs were far more likely to succeed again: their success rate for later venture-backed companies was 34 percent. But entrepreneurs whose companies had been liquidated or gone bankrupt had almost the same follow-on success rate as the first-timers: 23 percent” (also available on Signal V. Noise).
So, while embracing and learning from failure may make us feel better, it does not promote future success.
The Problem with “Problem-Based Learning”
If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, you must go together.” — Proverb
Learning from failure is typically associated with learning from experience. The idea is that we have to fail, and fail quickly, in order to understand how to iterate, improve, and succeed. This is part of the principle behind “problem-based learning,” which in a traditional education setting is made up of instructional programs that rely on minimal guidance.
However, there is empirical evidence across decades of studies that problem-based learning is ineffective.
In a study published in Educational Psychologist, researchers consolidated findings from these studies along with new research to demonstrate how problem-based learning ignores human cognitive architecture, leading to weaker results than direct instruction.
Specifically, when we problem-solve, our brains are drawing on an abundance of learning stored in our long-term memory and then applying it. We may not be conscious that this is taking place, but cognitively, when we are guided and instructed over periods of time, we are filing away that information for later use.
A minimally guided approach is akin to starting from scratch — we cannot draw upon a base of information we don’t have, and we have to accumulate new information over time, which means learning takes longer, if it happens at all. –Click to Tweet
In fact, the study showed that in classrooms, pure “problem-based learning” wasn’t actually applied for this reason. Progress in students was slow, with students in one example becoming frustrated with minimal guidance in science experiments. Teachers began implementing more direct instruction just to help students make headway.
The researchers’ survey of experiential workplace learning found the same to be true. Minimal guidance led to minimal results.
In other words, figuring things out on your own doesn’t usually work, and it if does, it takes a lot of time.
And time is not something our overtasked, overworked, and fast-moving employee base has.
The Self-Sufficiency Myth
As Matt Ridley, acclaimed author of The Rational Optimist, wrote in Tribe of Mentors:
“Self-sufficiency is another word for poverty.” When we try to do everything ourselves instead of bringing others into the fold — especially those who are better at specific functions and roles than we are — we end up with less time and success.
So why are we willfully impoverishing ourselves?
One of the main mistakes we make around failure is to believe that since successful people fail, that means their success and failure are linked. But correlation does not imply causation.
In fact, one of the main reasons this logic is flawed is because everybody fails. To fail is to be human, but to be human does not mean to be a successful business leader.
Another reason we focus on self-sufficiency is because we live in a culture of disruption and innovation. There is an extraordinary amount of pressure on millennials and members of Generation Z to create something wholly new, to uncover the secret, to think differently.
And it’s true that creation, truth-seeking, and out-of-the-box thinking produce incredible results. But there’s a difference between doing these things in a vacuum and doing them out in the world.
We don’t have to do things alone to innovate. Learning from others doesn’t entrap us in a never-ending cycle of the status quo. It just feeds our long-term memory with the knowledge we need to find success instead of failure.
Learning to Learn from Success
In a conversation I had with serial technology CEO Steve Subar, he emphasized that there is “no prize for learning the hard way” and “nothing wrong with learning from people with experience.” His teams succeeded when they focused seeking out answers from people and then if there weren’t answers, to problem-solve and start from scratch.
Learning from failure works when there is no framework, when there is no answer, and when there are no other options. –Click to Tweet
But the truth is that most problems have pre-established answers, ones that you can take and refit to your specific conditions. You can iterate on other people’s solutions to create your own, which saves you time and does nothing to diminish your credibility as an individual contributor.
Accepting help and answers does not imply exact reproduction. Prominent venture capitalist Mike Maples Jr., Partner at Floodgate, wrote in Tribe of Mentors:
“The best advice I have seen comes from people who don’t try to tell me the answer […] instead they give me a new approach to thinking about the question so I can solve it better on my own.”
When it comes to success, find people who have achieved it in the areas you are trying to improve, disrupt, and create. Then, deconstruct their successes. Find out how their processes, frameworks, tools, and perspectives informed their successes. Ask them questions and have them guide you through yours.
Ultimately, when you learn to learn from success instead of focusing on failure, you will position yourself for greater success in the future.