Failure is not the falling down, it is the staying down.
“We learn more from failure” is one of those problematic pieces of common knowledge we hear from time to time. It is problematic because it is a self fulfilling prophecy. We expect to learn more failure and, so, we do.
We don’t learn more from failure because failure has some magical teaching quality. We learn because we take the time to reflect on it, understand what happened, and learn lessons that drive change in how we approach our work/life.
If we deconstructed success and obsessed about its causes the same way we do with failure, we could learn just as much from it. But, that doesn’t happen because common knowledge tells us to celebrate success instead of learning from it.
We can change that.
Tomas Tunguz, a venture capitalist at Redpoint, has an old and interesting post about what a dog and a monkey that taught him about management.
When he was at Google, the 75 person AdSense Operations team used to gather every week for an All Hands. And, along with an update on how they were doing, the meeting always features two stuffed animals – Whoops the monkey and Duke the dog.
When Whoops the monkey was summoned, a handful of team members would retell stories about a mistake they made during the week – once or twice, these were million dollar mistakes. The group would then vote on a winner and that person would have Whoops in their cubicle that week. Then came Duke the dog. Now, team members would share stories about team members who went above and beyond their call of duty.
Whoops helped create a culture that value learning, openness and support and Duke ensured collaborative effort was recognized and celebrated.
I’ve seen variations of “Duke” in meetings over the years. But, I’ve rarely seen the equivalent of “Whoops.” I can see how it would be a powerful way to encourage a growth mindset. I’d love to give it a try.
Training wheels sound so great in concept. After all, they remove all the risk from learning to ride a bike.
But, they don’t work.
It turns out that removing all the risk of losing balance doesn’t teach us the most important ability required to ride a bike – how to balance. And, that, in turn, also means we don’t actually learn to ride the bike. Worse, it hinders our ability to learn without training wheels.
Risk and reward go together. Falling down is an important part of learning. And, we only make progress when we embrace the possibility of a fall.
Why, then, do we use training wheels? Fear of failure.
And, that’s thanks to a misunderstanding. You see, failure is not the falling down, it is the staying down.
I thought about this morning’s post a few times. I had a learning in queue that I had been thinking about from our Microeconomics class this week. But, I decided to shelve that this week and write about something that is top of mind – failure. That also leads me to the other related thought – when I’d first thought of the “MBA Learnings” series, it wasn’t just to share learnings from class. It was also to really touch upon life in business school and share my thought process as I approached it.
One of the questions I ask myself from time to time is – am I failing enough? I ask myself this question for a few reasons. First, it is because I think there is a strong connection between failure and learning. I have come to realize that the biggest by-product of success is self confidence. Yes, if you are smart, you will sit down and discuss what went well. And, yes, you will learn a lot from it. But, when you fail, you don’t have anything else to hold onto except learning. That’s powerful. Second, it is because failure helps guard against complacency. There is no mechanism that makes you eat humble pie as much as failure. I think that’s incredibly important because humility is what keeps us in touch with reality. And, it is people who really understand reality that are able to drive change and do something with it.
I received a few texts from a friend last night that I saw as I woke up. He shared that a project he’d been working on had failed. He said – “I couldn’t do it. We couldn’t do it.” I could feel his disappointment. But, I also thought that was a great way to think about it. Even if we’re working in a team that has a share in our failures, the best way to think about failure, in my opinion, is to start with the “I.” Sure, you can blame everyone and everything around you. Sure, the circumstances must have been extenuating. But, you played a part. And you have to own it.
I say this because I’ve spent the last two days reflecting on a project I consider very important. And, after a few weeks of intense effort, I feel I’ve made a large enough collection of mistakes to slow down and reflect. We’re in a creative stage of the process and I’ve enjoyed this stage and have experimented heavily. The nature of experimentation is that a few work and most do not. And, every once in a while, the collection of experiments that don’t work threaten to overshadow the ones that do. And, I think I am at one such point – a real learning moment. I woke up at 4 this morning and spent the last hour and a half putting these thoughts together. This isn’t the first such learning moment of course.
It made me remember a moment 5 years ago now when we were in the early stages of putting together a team for what felt like an audacious project as a university student – to put together a new university version of Britain’s Got Talent (inspired by the Susan Boyle moment) and to do so despite not having an assurance that we’d have enough funding to pull it off. We had only secured 30% of the funds required, had no venue, and had just begun putting together a small team. 2 weeks into working with the team, I received an email from one of the team members asking to withdraw. I went back to that this morning and thought I’d share a small part that I still remember –
Also the entire experience of working (together ?) in this student based team has not been completely great either. Yes, you might claim to model this on the real life workplace environment, but once again I fail to see true justifications for certain aspects. While I do understand from our brief interactions, that leadership skills are what are being aimed for by each of you, I have to admit, that I was not really motivated to look up to you as a person who could lead us to work for <> (maybe because I failed to see the part of ‘lead by example’ coming in anywhere).
Following this note, 2 others withdrew. Oh, it hurt. There’s something to be said for moments when people around you look at you and say (either verbally or not) that you’re not deserving of their trust.
That definitely was a learning moment.
But, I also know now, with the benefit of hindsight, that, the eventual success wouldn’t have occurred without such moments. They’re painful in the short term but meaningful in the long term. And, five years later, I can say with a lot of certainty that I look back at these moments with a smile.
I find myself facing new kinds of challenges today. It has been a challenge finding the time to reflect amidst two packed days. This stuff doesn’t happen when you are sitting idle and looking for things to think about. I guess that’s what is great about waking up early and getting some time to yourself. After two days of thinking about it, I think I’ve finally understood where the problems lie. And, I realize I’m going to approach it as I normally do – own up to my mistakes, be open about my intentions and have a conversation.
That goes back to my original question – Am I failing enough? Before I answer that, I’d just like to say that this is what I’ve loved about the MBA experience. You have a huge number of opportunities to experiment, learn and fail. There’s only so much you can fail at work – there are way too many things at stake (most of all, your own job). But, I’m now in a place where I’m paying a couple of hundred thousand dollars to learn and I intend to make the most of that. The new Kellogg rebranding led to the “inspiring growth” tag-line. That’s easier said than done, of course. Growth can be painful because it requires you to experiment, fail and learn. But, is it worth it? Absolutely.
And, as of this morning, I definitely think I am failing. And, I am fortunate to be in an environment that allows me to fail spectacularly. It is occasionally painful but I’m glad for the opportunity.
I heard back on 2 project outcomes yesterday – one went really well and one didn’t go so well. Guess which one I woke up thinking about?
The half-life of a failure is much much longer than the half-life of a success. So, the question then becomes – is there a way around it? Here’s how I think about it –
In the short term, I’m not sure there is. Successes and failures are a part of life and we have to learn to accept that failures stay longer with us. We expect negative emotions very intensely. There is no getting around that and you aren’t going to change your response overnight.
In the medium term, there are a few ideas that can help. The first is to develop a coping mechanism. I have developed two coping mechanisms that tend to help me. First, I give myself a certain stretch of time (depending on the size of the failure) to play victim. And I allow myself to kick myself and curse things a bit. Once I’m done with playing victim, I think about I learnt from the process and write about it. This part enables me to look back at the process that led to the outcome, draw my own conclusions about what went wrong and look forward to things that I should do better. The beautiful part of writing a daily blog that talks about seeing failures as learnings is that failures help me keep a steady pipeline of content. That’s not a bad outcome.
And, finally, in the long term, I see it as a part of a quest to become more zen – to accept the things I cannot change and focus intensely on the things I can. Every minute spent on a past result is a minute taken away from a future process, after all. I know this but it doesn’t make executing on it any easier.
As you can tell, I am in the “medium term” bit. This process has taken me about 6 years to internalize. Let’s hope I’ll be writing about the long term part 6 years from now. :-)
I’m sure you’ve heard about or asked that famous question – do we learn more from success or failure?
Let’s put that question on hold for a moment for a quick question – I had submitted two assignments recently. I scored well on one and didn’t score well on the other. Guess which one I wanted to review?
This isn’t uncommon – the issue with debriefing after success is that there is almost no patience to make them meaningful. A debrief after a failure feels like a necessary post-mortem. A debrief after success feels like attempts to delay the party. Success, in short, makes us lazy and complacent. It makes us want to celebrate and then come back and get the next success (sometimes without putting in the work). Reflections after success can be as rich as those from failure. Just because failure makes learning seem more important doesn’t mean that it is. Perhaps that is why discipline is often cited as a key success ingredient – it takes discipline to overcome the resistance and get on with the reflection and learning.
And, of course, we can avoid the whole discussion by learning to ignore the result and focus hard on the process. Good decisions and a good process => good results in the long run. Reflecting on the process is an easier habit to instill and your process can almost always get a bit better. That’s when it stops being about winning and losing. A process focus is all about the playing.
Welcome to the infinite game.