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Failure as the precondition for growth

Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, James Dyson, and J.K. Rowling are some of the most successful and wealthy people on the planet: Yet, they have all experienced so much failure that it would have made the average person quit. Failure is shunned in society and is considered an embarrassment on an individual scale. A lot of real-world systems are built against failure which is evident from school exams to high-stakes job interviews – you only get one chance.

There are two reasons why embracing failure is extremely useful: Firstly, a fear of failure prevents you from reaching your true potential – many fear failing which prevents them from even trying. Secondly, failure is the most direct form of input which is why it builds skill fast. Utilizing failure has unbridled potential as it only requires persistence for trial and error and an analytical approach, both of which will be extensively covered in this article.

Interactive table of contents

Failure in society

Role of failure in learning and success

Practical applications

In-depth breakdown of the framework

Failure in society

Failure is almost completely absent in a social context which is a good indication of just how big of a taboo subject it is: social media glamorizes success, a diverse and happy lifestyle, and rarely features stories about failure or adversity. Failure is not a fun subject to talk about, either. Who would want to tell their friends or family that they have just failed an exam, when their sibling just announced that they got the top grade? Failure and success are a big part of the social dynamic, but comparing them is often unnecessary and harmful.

The fear of failure is most likely caused due to partially outdated biological factors: in a social context, failure has traditionally indicated weakness, which influenced the status of the individual in their social hierarchy. This affected their important goals such as career development or chances of starting a family. School systems with their one-take exams and finals discourage failure as well as the job application process does with interviews that only give you one chance that can be quickly and irreversibly lost.

The key takeaway is to be aware of this structure and make it work for you: As failure is essential for growth, you need to find methods to practice it that do not influence your social status or school grade if it is relevant to your situation – Experiencing failure publicly can be used as a powerful tool to build tremendous self-determination and courage.

Role of failure in learning and success

The reason why failure is so supremely powerful is that it is the clearest form of direct input for what you are doing – What you are doing is wrong, and there is a reason why that you must figure out. With any other result, such as an average result, the variables influencing the score can be tenfold. Failures indicate that you need a new approach and that the approach you chose is most likely not sustainable.

Most successful people in this world have experienced tremendous failure: The billionaire inventor James Dyson created over 5,100 prototypes until he found success with his trailblazer bagless vacuum prototype. The British author J.K. Rowling got rejected by 12 publishers while trying to get Harry Potter book series published – With over 500 million sold copies, the world's most popular book series would have never seen the light of day had Rowling not been tenacious. Optimism is an unrelenting force that drives progress as the trial-and-error process becomes tedious due to failure.

The reason why failure drives improvement so strongly is that it gives feedback on a certain approach that can be compared to new alternatives. One of the biggest challenges of creativity is deciding where to start and failure narrows options down significantly. Even though failure might just be due to a lack of skill, it will inherently direct you towards an easier approach that is more suitable for your skill level or understanding in the matter at hand: If a beginner cook fails tremendously in making a complex dessert, they might be better off starting with making a simple dinner.

Only two requirements are essential if you want failure to be beneficial: You will need to endure the occasional dullness of trial and error and you need to focus on your analytical skills – If you're failing and then going with the same approach again, it is like banging your head against a brick wall. You will only feel worse if you keep doing the same thing.

Practical applications

Being persistent is often best experienced, but how do you develop analytical skills in practice? I have figured out a relatively simple formulation for it: It can be simplified as a feedback loop of attempt, result, analysis and repeat. I have provided an illustration below. Look at it briefly and then check out the practical example below it.

It is crucial to properly break down and analyze the individual segments of the attempt that influence the result. Let's do this with a simple example of studying for an exam using the same framework as above:

In practice this means that refining the individual components (in this example lecture attendance, taking notes, doing homework, and revising for the exam) improve the result. This refining process requires objective and methodical analysis through note taking so you are aware of what you do in the various segments – if you're very self-aware, then just objective assessment of your past actions may be sufficient. An easy method is to roughly log your actions at the end of each study day: This should give you an estimation of how you are studying, and your grade often reflects that accurately.

In-depth breakdown of the framework

Improving your results boils down to identifying and improving your segments correctly. I have listed out a few example segments for very common areas of improvement from learning to working out:

  • Studying: Lecture attendance, note taking, doing homework, and revising for the exam

  • Entrepreneurship: Marketing, product and/or service development, customer experience, and improving corporate governance

  • Running: Stretching, duration, distance, cadence, and running speed

  • Strength training: Stretching, range of motion, technique and form, duration, lifted weight, and programming

Let's take another example on studying regarding how these elements are improved in practice. You should have a relatively easy time determining the details like in the example below, such as knowing if you tend to take lecture notes or not.

The illustration looks very complex at first, but it consists of very simple elements. In this example the objective analysis reveals that the result of the bad grade was mostly caused by insufficient revision, something which was addressed in the new attempt. Other segments were developed further too, contributing towards improvement. Using this same framework of differentiating the essential segments, analyzing them, and then trying out a new approach often improves the result irrespective of what you are trying to improve.

This framework is applicable to whatever you do be it game development, handcraft, studying or practice at work. All you need is an objective perspective, careful analysis, and a new approach in response. This approach has worked extremely well for me in my law school studies and as I have refined my study methods to improve my grades dramatically compared to my results when I started.


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