Never Stop Learning: Failure

Ultimately the ‘learn-it-all’ will always do better than the ‘know-it-all’ – Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

I recently picked up Never Stop Learning by Bradley R. Staats. The author makes the case that to thrive and succeed in the new economy, we should always be learning. He says that when it comes to learning, we are our own worst enemies. Our behavioral and psychological traits inhibit us from making the most of the learning opportunities. The author identifies eight areas where if we adopt the strategies and processes, as suggested by him to overcome our inhibitions, we can become better learners.

This post is dedicated to the first area: Learning from Failure

Why do we need failure to learn? Learning requires trying new things. When new things don’t work as promised i.e. the endeavor is considered a failure. We follow a three-step process when faced with a failure. First, when we fail, we NOTICE it. Like a barrier suddenly making an appearance on our smooth drive and blocking it. Second, we respond. We feel embarrassed, shocked or surprised. If we allow this step to overwhelm us, it can demoralize us and prevent us from trying new things again. But, if we move to the third step i.e. try to identify what went wrong and why; only then we began to learn. We start looking for new information that led us to failure. We try to incorporate the lessons in our processes as to what pitfalls to avoid in the future. This is learning.

We should be mindful to not be deceived by fundamental attribution error_ failure of our ability to attribute cause and effect. It is important for the observers to analyze whether the failure occurred because of the person or the situation he was in (circumstances beyond his control)? A misattribution between the two may lead to inappropriate solutions and learning. On a personal level, when it comes to failure, we overweight the role of luck and difficulty of the task and underweight our ability and effort. Conversely, when judging others, we reverse the weights. If we assign the responsibility for the failure to events beyond our control, we negatively impact our ability to learn.

Another problem arises when we don’t recognize failure in order to protect our self-image. We may de-emphasize its importance or change the benchmark against which measure success or failures. In addition, we may engage in counterfactual thinking i.e. what might have happened?  The author gives an example of a sports coach who after his team suffers a defeat says we had “moral victory”. If we don’t recognize failure for what it is, we won’t look at the “why” of the failure and hence, not learn.

Learning from failure does not result in an “A-ha!” moment as one is to believe from the depiction of the “hero” stories in media i.e. failure leads the protagonist to realize what went wrong and then she makes a brilliant discovery. Learning from failure is a grinding and painful slog and success can elude you for a long time.

When we open ourselves to failure, we embark on the journey of learning. Failure challenges our assumptions. If we had succeeded, our assumptions would not have been tested and we would maintain the status quo. When we fail, we realize a course correction needs to be made as status quo just won’t do.

The popular mantra in VC land is “fail fast”. This is not to save investor’s money. Well, it may be part of the reason. But it is mainly to try as many new ideas as possible to see which one sticks and to quickly move on from the ones that don’t. The author and management consultant Tom Peters suggests that winning strategy is WTTMSW “Whoever tries the most stuff wins”. Unquestionably, trying the most stuff means failing at a lot of stuff.

So how to successfully learn from failure?

One, we need to destigmatize failure by bringing in transparency on the efforts. Not just focus on the outcome but also talk about the actions taken to arrive at that point. We also need to record and talk about the failures suffered by others in various fields before they chanced upon success. This brings home the point that everyone fails at one time or another.

Two, we need to change our vocabulary. We think safety in the status quo and risk of trying new stuff. Risk means that there is a chance for a loss and avoiding loss means that we may never undertake an action that results in a loss. We should think and talk about the safety of trying new stuff and risk in the status quo.

Three, we need to review the processes and strategies (this is the next area in the book and will be the topic of a future blogpost) that brought us to the failure. We need to avoid the fundamental attribution error and try to separate the role of chance/luck/failure from the mistakes/pitfalls that can be avoided. Michael Mauboussin had a brilliant book on the topic though he was looking at it from the opposite angle i.e. how do we untangle the role of skill and luck in our successes, which I excerpted in my earlier post.

Our focus on success should not preclude us from learning from failure. When we fail, we should not let the opportunity to learn from it go to waste.

Happy failing learning.

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