Learning from Failure. The more it hurts the better you learn.

20130903-233825.jpgI’ve heard lot of people recently going on about how necessary it is to fail. “Fail fast, fail forward”, “Learn the lessons from failure, and move on”, “Take risks and accept that some things will fail”, “Share your mistakes”.

It’s all a bit worrying if you’ve spent your working life in organisations where failure (and particularly owning up to it) is something you’ve avoided at all cost, and you certainly don’t go public trumpeting the details of your epic fail.

I do understand the value in encouraging a bit of well-managed risk taking, and the inevitable failure. If the graphic that was popular on twitter recently (see above) is anything to go by, multiple failures are the best route to a successful venture. However, for me there is a key thing missing here, what does failure (let alone multiple failures) actually feel like? Also, how do you maximise the learning from failure?

I think we need to be prepared for the emotional consequence of failure because, I have a theory: The more the failure hurts you, the better the learning. Let me explain from some of my own experiences.

Low Pain Failure: A situation many will have experienced, the contract tender. You invest a significant amount of time in writing the tender proposal, submit it by the due date and wait for a decision.

You get the call, sorry your submission wasn’t successful: your fees were too high, you lacked the relevant experience, other bidders offered greater value for money (delete as appropriate).

All good feedback, you learn the lessons and will dutifully apply them to the next tender proposal.

To be honest, there’s not much pain in these nowadays, it’s just a ‘consequence of doing business’. I probably felt more pain with the first few of these that got rejected. There certainly isn’t a massive ‘post mortem’ of hand wringing and ‘anguished why’s’ anymore.

Medium Pain Failure: Someone rejects my clever idea. I’m asked to help someone solve a problem by contributing my thoughts and ideas. They then go away and do completely the opposite of what I’d suggested – in fact something I’d warned them against. My goodness, that hurts.

Translating the pain of failure in these circumstances can take a couple of routes. The petulant teenager in me would like to terrible things like the “I told you so dance” around the wreckage of their daft idea that went wrong.

The sensible grown up in me asks questions like: “how did I fail to properly communicate my ideas to these people?”, “what do I need to do to help them understand?”, “how can I better evidence my arguments?”

A helpful and quite deep learning process, driven by the pain of the failure.

Very Painful Failure: I do lots of swimming, pretty much every morning before work, generally a mile which I can manage in a respectable 32mins (it does vary). Over the summer I entered a mile long, open water sea swimming competition between Port Gaverne and Port Isaac in North Cornwall. I’ve never done this sort of thing before, but surely it all amounts to pretty much the same thing, doesn’t it?

Well, I got it spectacularly wrong. After about 400m I’d convinced myself that I was going to drown and headed straight for the rescue boat, to extract myself whilst I was still capable of doing so. Just to add to my shame I was dropped off by the finishing line to wade ashore and meet the cheering crowds.

I spent the rest of the day sulking in bed.

The emotional pain of failure was immense…… to be honest it’s still gnawing away at me.

What this has done though is drive some intense learning. I have committed to go back next year and complete the swim. The last two weeks have been all about asking swim buddies at the pool (and some complete strangers) what they know about sea swimming…. apologies to them if it feels like a bit of a grilling.

This is intense learning and, by spring I reckon I will be a walking open water swimming encyclopedia.

Next steps: Back down to the sea to put the learning into practice; look out Porthcawl.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. For many successful people and organisations accepting that things fail, and admitting it, might be a difficult thing to come to terms with.
  2. Saying we should accept failure and learn from it is easy to say, but quite a hard thing to do. There are emotional consequences.
  3. There may well be a link between the pain of failure and intensity of the learning (there was for me). The greater the pain the bigger the learning.

Picture Source: I think it originated with @douglaskarr https://twitter.com/douglaskarr


About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

22 Responses

  1. Ena Lloyd

    Great blog. My view on this is based on my interpretation of the four C’s:-
    It takes great Courage to be know you may be publicly seen to fail;
    It takes huge conviction to extract the emotion and a willingness to Capture the earning; and
    A willingness to leave your comfort zone in the first instance is the greatest Challenge of all.

  2. Tony Dowling

    Great post! But I do worry about all this failure
    I’m pretty sure I do what I do due to the success to failure ratio being so lopsidedly biased to the success side of the equation
    I do see the point, and reducing the emotional cost of trial and error is clearly useful.
    But, lets be fair, it’s all about winning isn’t it?

      1. Tony Dowling

        And all the very best for it! I always admire these sorts of undertakings, like marathons and the like. Im sure you’ll learn lots!

      2. I don’t like to be a contrarian, but I couldn’t disagree more. Clearly you are trying to “win”, and you hope the failure to success ration will not be too high, but you will never know until you have succeeded, which (i) you may never do, (ii) you may rate differently when you get there, and (iii) other people may rate differently from you. All this makes your ratios subjective, liable to change over time and, of course, subject to confirmation bias.

        So, for example Edison supposedly made 10,000 lightbulb prototypes that failed before he got it right. so failure:success is 10,000:1, cetainly lobsided. So if that were you experimenting when would you have given up? What failure ratio would be tolerable? Of course in hindsight Edison was very successful, but if that were you, measuring the ratios, uncertain if it would ever come good, setting up experiment 500, would you be thinking “too much failure, ratio is not good, time to move on”?

        Tony said “I’m prety sure I do what I do due to the success to failure ratio being so lopsidedly biased to the success side of the equation” Now read http://thinkpurpose.com/2013/08/30/the-willie-sutton-rule/ (not my blog, no affiliation).

        So, I suggest you do it because you love doing it, not anything about ratios. Is ThinkPurpose right?

  3. Joy

    Always interesting and never boring. Great post again – and I think Pippa’s point about how much you care about something relates to how much it hurts and how much it learns. My money’s def on you for the next sea swim! 🙂

  4. Clover

    As my father used to say “Success is not how far you’ve come, its how many obstacles you have overcome”. But ultimately I guess its about not loosing enthusiasm and also is giving up failure or just tactical withdrawal?

  5. Great post Chirs – my friend and I were only talking about this subject the other night actually. We thought that there was something there about the experiences people had already had to encounter (personally or professionally) and how they had dealt with them in the past that would enable them to go through this learning. Also, is there an element of natural tendencies towards optimism / pessimism and personal resilience that changes this process?
    Good luck with your sea swim! Have you done / could you do any lake swimming as in between phase of learning?


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