You’ve heard it over and over: “Learn from your mistakes.” Or maybe you’ve heard “fail early and often.” There are plenty of catchy quotes about failure. Most of them end with a clever little twist that makes it sound like it’s a good thing. Is it?
I don’t understand the cultural fascination with failure being the source of great lessons to be learned. What did you learn? You learned what didn’t work. Now you won’t make the same mistake twice, but you’re just as likely to make a different mistake next time. You might know what won’t work, but you still don’t know what will work. That’s not much of a lesson.
Instead, put most of your energy into studying your successes. What have you done right? What worked? Why did it work? How you can repeat it? Instead of making something worse a little better, how about making something good a little better? Don’t spend so much time looking down. Look up more.
There’s a significant difference between “now I know what to do again” and “don’t do that again.” The former being better than the latter.
It’s true: Everything is a learning experience. Good and bad, there’s something to be learned. But all learning isn’t equal. I’ve found that if you’re going to spend your time pondering the past, focus on the wins not the losses. The lessons learned from doing well give you a better chance at continuing your success.
GeeIWonderon 03 Feb 09
There’s a significant difference between “now I know what to do again” instead of “don’t do that again.” The former being better than the latter.
I really, really, really, strenuously disagree with this. The former doesn’t even identify what you did vs. what you didn’t do.
For the stuff that I try and get across to people, knowing one path is not nearly enough, and certainly doesn’t demonstrate the fundamental comprehension I am trying to convey.
JFon 03 Feb 09
I’m not suggesting there is only one path.
I’m saying that you now have one path that works. To me that’s more valuable that having one path that doesn’t work. You can dissect what worked to try to understand what elements of that path were successful. Then you can repeat with some confidence.
I find that a better outcome than knowing a path that doesn’t work.
david in portlandon 03 Feb 09
I completely agree. While I absolutely take note of things that have been unsuccessful or less successful, I focus on, pattern after, and invest 9/10ths of my thinking in successful outcomes (my own and those of others). And, I spend almost zero time, in any parts of my life, thinking about failure, other than how to avoid it at all costs and at all times.
Success breeds more success much better than failure, I think.
GeeIWonderon 03 Feb 09
@JF: Yeah, I get your point, and your post. I agree for the most part.
That one line strikes me as wrong though. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently.
The trick is knowing a right path from a wrong path and identifying them before ultimate failure. If you stick to right paths, you don’t know what a wrong path looks like.
But I could sure as shoot be wrong too. In any case, one wrong line does not a wrong post make, and the rest of it is pretty bang-on.
Daniel Burkaon 03 Feb 09
I think the idea of failure is more useful when you’re thinking about the future than about the past. So many people get frozen trying to build something for fear of failing. The idea that your ‘failures’ are just part of the path to succeeding is something that many people don’t get.
Jason Reedon 03 Feb 09
Interesting post. There seems to be a lot of “it’s OK to fail” type ideas floating around at the moment.
To me, the key is to be able to identify the small things that worked that can be extrapolated to a constant to apply to every goal/project. I think people who can look back and identify the little successful things are more apt to be able to carry their success from goal to goal, rather than chalking it up to luck.
Travis Lon 03 Feb 09
I love this attitude—very positive!
My only caveat: it’s often vastly easier to determine the source of a failure than the source of a success. It is tough to separate skilled-cause-of-success from luck-caused-success.
That said, “lessons learned” applies to both success as well as failure. I think my take home point from this is to not overlook your past success—take lessons from that to guide you in the future!
Josh Catoneon 03 Feb 09
I never took “learn from failure” to mean, “study your failures for lessons about success.” I read it as, “failure isn’t terrible, as long as you pick something up along the way to help you fail less (or not fail) the next time around.”
Of course you need to study what you did right to replicate it the next time, but if you keep your eyes open you can learn a lot from the times you screwed up as well—not from the actual failing part, but from all the experience you gain leading up to it.
Jason Liebeon 03 Feb 09
Ah, I think a key thing is missing here, and I’ll make an analogy because I have about 30 seconds to write this.
I skated (as in skateboard) for 10 years. The people that don’t fall/fail are the people that don’t try to do insane shit!
If you really challenge yourself and attempt something to take you to the next level there’s no way you’re going to succeed every time.
And to again use the skating analogy, when you fall on your balls on a handrail you indeed learn what does not work. And I have a neocortex, so somewhere in there knowing what doesn’t work does indeed tell me a little about what does.
But great article, I see your point. I just read Strengths Finder 2.0 and that focuses on getting better at what you’re good at instead of fixing what you’re bad at. I think that has some relevancy to this post as well.
Philon 03 Feb 09
Asking “what did we do right” is a school of thought known as “Appreciative Inquiry”. My mother is an expert on the subject.
Jon Budaon 03 Feb 09
Yeah, I agree with part of this.
I mean, I think it’s definitely helpful to focus on what did work in the past, but ultimately coming to that conclusion almost always includes what you failed at while getting to that point.
When discussing what did work, you will invariably end up talking about what did not work
Chris Anthonyon 03 Feb 09
I guess we’re approaching this from different directions. You seem to be taking “learn from failure” to mean “only focus on the things that went wrong”; I’ve always taken “learn from failure” on a macro level, so that when I fail at something, I look both at what I did wrong and what I did right within the larger failure. Likewise, if I learn from success, I’m not just looking at the things I did right; I’m paying special attention to how to avoid the things despite which I succeeded.
I’m also not sure I agree with your assertion that it’s better to improve a good thing than to improve a bad thing. If I have (to use a blatantly simplistic 10-point scale from -5 to 5) one item at a -2, and one item at a 2; and I can either raise the 2 to a 3, or raise the -2 to a 2; I consider it far more worth my time to do the latter, and work on improving the negative rather than ignoring it and improving the positive. (Ideally I’d improve both! But we only have so many hours in the day.)
Perhaps I don’t really understand what you’re getting at, and in that case I apologize for misunderstanding. I do, however, think you’re giving learning from failure short shrift – even as those you quote at the beginning of your post might over-value it.
Kennethon 03 Feb 09
In other news:
When you’re hungry, maybe you should eat. If something hurts, maybe you should stop doing it. If you fail, maybe you should try something different next time. If you succeed, maybe you should try the same thing next time.
Funny when unconventional wisdom becomes conventional wisdom, and conventional wisdom becomes unconventional wisdom.
Michael Maitlenon 03 Feb 09
I essentially agree, but I do feel that failure is way to negative of a word. It should be okay in our society to fail, yes, you want to move in a successful direction, but failing should be embraced and not ridiculed.
Also, usually, if you are “failing” it just means that you are pushing your limits and figuring out how to push through them. I practice martial arts, if I always took peoples advice and never got hit while sparring, I’d never get any better because I wasn’t going outside my area of comfort. I feel this is similar to other challenges we take up in life.
If you always stay in your comfort zone because you want to “succeed” you won’t be pushing yourself to grow and learn.
Anonymous Cowardon 03 Feb 09
Failure is glorified and overrated.
Learn from your failures until you succeed. Then learn to repeat your success.
I like Thomas Edison’s quote “I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb.” That’s not focus on failure, that’s focus on a goal.
rafael jimenezon 03 Feb 09
Neither failures nor successes are a great source of learning if looked at literally—one has to be able to extrapolate things that may be applicable at different contexts or situations in order to learn something more valuable.
I guess the thing to stress about failure is, don’t be afraid of it. Experiment. Dive into it. Some things will succeed, some will fail. But don’t be paralyzed by failure (or fear of failure). Use it.
Hilton Campbellon 03 Feb 09
Nice, a contrarian take on a contrarian theme.
Martinon 03 Feb 09
I think people often use phrases like “fail early and often” to encourage people to just start a project and put something out there, many people are too afraid of failing and never start something.
Brian Burridgeon 03 Feb 09
I’m torn on this one Jason. On the one hand, I like the idea of staying positive and focusing no your success, which we really should do. But on the other hand, an awful lot of successful people have gotten where they are after they really learned the hard way. As well as successful sports teams that were so-so until they lost a big game, and then turned the corner and became unstoppable. Many people will stay at a dead end job for example, because they are keeping it and are being paid, and thus aren’t failing. However, they don’t make life changing decisions until after they lose that job, and feel like they failed miserably.
I would say in the end, that it doesn’t matter which is best to learn from, only that we learn from both. Learn from history, regardless of whether its a success or a failure. But, once you’ve learned from a failure, let it go, and focus on the positive.
Anonymous Cowardon 03 Feb 09
Failure discussions I’ve been part of are not about learning from your failures. Instead, the point is if you are pushing yourself to the limits and stretching your capabilities then you will experience failure. Do not fear it. Do not consider yourself or your company a failure when failures happen.
I truly believe this. If you have not failed in some attempt at some thing, then you have not reached your full potential. You can see this practical advice as a common thread between almost all business and sports starts; from Richard Branson to Michael Jordan.
“Failure is not making mistakes but not giving things a go in the first place.” – Branson
Jordan – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45mMioJ5szc
totoon 03 Feb 09
You can make a parallel with sports (like ski or swim).
The most important thing for these teams is to have a “leader” with really better results.
That way the “leader” brings a reference to the other they have to reach. Then globally the team gets better (inside the team and compared to the other teams). See like when a Swiss guy tends to win all the member of his teams tends to be also in the top ranking.
It is clear that people get better imitating the better and that learning by mistake is timeconsuming and only teachs you which path not to follow.
Martin Ringleinon 03 Feb 09
We are not rats in some science experiment; if I bite the cheese on the right and it shocks me I no longer bite the cheese on the right. Learning from failure or mistakes is about evolution, it is about becoming better.
It is about more than learning what not to do in one instance, it is about growth on a much higher level. I don’t need to touch a stove-top to learn that I will get burned when its on. But at some point I did learn what was hot and varying levels of temperature and at some point I probably even got burned by something … but the take away was far greater than just dealing with stoves.
It is when you fear failure that is the biggest issue. That is where all of those positive remarks regarding failure come from. They are not there to tell you that failure is good or essential, they are there to tell you that it isn’t the end of the world—that amazing things can come as a result.
Laurel Fanon 03 Feb 09
I think the cultural fascination with learning from failure is because there’s a biological fascination with learning only from success and not thinking about failure (confirmation bias, cargo cults, loss aversion).
Joseph S.on 03 Feb 09
Ha! I literally laughed out loud when I read this post. Because it is so quintessentially “37 Signals” in nature. Focus on the positive… don’t admit failure, reframe the topic… regurgitate your own stuff ad nauseam…
Needless to say, I heartily disagree with you. Looking at what you did right only inflates your ego and produces a false sense of “rightness” that can ultimately make you lazy and complacent. Learning from your mistakes makes you grow and change and adapt.
Can you name ONE famously successful person who would say they learn MORE from their mistakes than their failures??
Joseph S.on 03 Feb 09
oops. Wishing for an edit button… that last sentence should have been…
Can you name ONE famously successful person who would say they learn MORE from their successes than their failures??
SEE—I learned from my failure! ;-)
Joshua Clantonon 03 Feb 09
I would guess that the reason there is so much material about learning from mistakes (rather than success) is that…
1. People tend to fail more often than succeed in things like business
2. Because failing is so common, there are more people who need to be encouraged to take the correct lesson from their failure (rather than success).
JFon 03 Feb 09
Ha! I literally laughed out loud when I read this post. Because it is so quintessentially “37 Signals” in nature. Focus on the positive… don’t admit failure, reframe the topic… regurgitate your own stuff ad nauseam…
Ha! I literally laughed out loud when I read this comment. Because it is so quintessentially “I’m going to put words in 37signals’ mouth.”
Where did we ever say “don’t admit failure”?
Everything is a learning experience. It’s just that I’ve found learning from your successes to be more advantageous.
It’s not inflating your ego to recognize a success and learn from it. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of what you’ve achieved. And there’s nothing wrong with trying to do it again and again.
We’ve made plenty of mistakes, and talked about many of them openly here on SvN and in workshops and speaking engagements. But I’ve always found more value in learning from the things that work than the things that don’t.
That is all.
Ericon 03 Feb 09
I think the assumption is that most people who abide by “its okay to fail a lot if you keep learning from them” just do seemingly random actions or ventures or whatever and end up failing over and over and over again. However, once you’ve failed once, I find fear of failure to be a very strong motivating force
Jim Jefferson 03 Feb 09
Excellent points Jason. I think you’re spot on suggesting it’s good to review lessons learned from everything. But the key is to study great business successes for inspiration. Learning from failures only helps mitigate risks.
Ian Ragsdaleon 04 Feb 09
Jason and many others on this board are fundamentally misunderstanding the concept behind “fail early and often”, and conflating it with “learn from your mistakes”.
The point of failing early and often is that when you’re trying something new, you really don’t know what works yet. So, you may have to try many different ideas. So, you need to iterate quickly and pull the plug on failed experiments fast, so you don’t waste a lot of time on the ideas that don’t work. It doesn’t mean you focus on your mistakes, it means you don’t have to be afraid of them if you identify them quickly. This aligns VERY well with your “get real” credo.
It also doesn’t mean that you focus on your mistakes and ignore your successes – of course you try not to fail. It just recognizes that anytime you are trying something new, you almost inevitably will try a bunch of things before something sticks.
Brian Burridgeon 04 Feb 09
After reading some of the comments I wanted to add on to my previous comment. For some time now in our country, successful people have been looked down on as arrogant asses. Its felt by some that successful people should humble themselves and thus the focus on looking at your failures and not your successes.
Look at how many successful people in this country are downright hated and despised. And so many find great comfort when they find out that someone else has failed or has a flaw. I often here, “well that makes them more human”, as if its not human to achieve your goals. It’s bringing others down to your perceived level, instead of rising to the level you wish to be on. Kids who get straight A’s are laughed at in school as being geeks; the rich are called greedy; if an athlete starts winning all the time, people gravitate toward the “underdog”. The masses want parity and mediocrity so their own worth isn’t challenged. I think this is what breeds the “learn from your failures” talk everywhere we turn.
Let me ask this question. WHO should you learn the most from? Someone who has failed at what you want to do or someone who has succeeded at what you want to do?
rajivon 04 Feb 09
When you get an idea what does not work, you can narrow down to those things that do work. You start off with a list of thing that work. Like 1% of the your visitors will actually end up paying for your service. Or 0.01% will end up clicking the ads. The failures help you in refining those numbers.
alsomikeon 04 Feb 09
Failure is important because it makes your theory of why you succeed falsifiable and testable, i.e. scientific.
But I must say, I salute your boldness in claiming that your business practices are non-falsifiable pseudo-science, particularly with a new book out!
philon 04 Feb 09
I don’t think this is a post that needed to be written. There is some truth in it, but the reason people keep saying “learn from your mistakes” is people tend to get depressed, beat themselves up, place blame, and not get the full benefit of making the mistake (learning).
Case in point, in 2001 I lost a ton of money in the stock market. I thought I couldn’t lose but I found out the hard way I could. Now I know. I will never make that mistake again. Success led me into a false sense of security. If there wasn’t a crash in 2001 I would have lost much, much more in 2008.
I think it’s 37 Signals trying to be contrarian for contrarian’s sake
Anonymous Cowardon 04 Feb 09
Hmmm. The thing is, doing something sucessful again and again means never doing anything new. Never being dynamic. Never evolving.
In order to do something new and interesting, you’re probably going to have to take some chances on some new ideas, and almost certainly make some mistakes (failures). This is a neccessary part of growth.
To illustrate, consider that batch processing on main frame computers enjoyed huge success in the 60’s and 70’s. Humanity had what was at the time an unprecendented ability to process information.
Today, that ability seems almost laughably primitive, and few would argue that we we’re fools to move on from this tried and trusted form of computing.
It’s a good job that our creatives weren’t patting themselves on the back, and thinking (to quote the author of this blog post) “now I know what to do again”.
There’s a excellent (and for me, life changing) discussion of this in Robert Pirsig’s “Lila” (Pirsig, as in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” fame). A quick search on MOQ (metaphysics of quality) might prove interesting.
Charleson 04 Feb 09
Just because you did something and you called it “successful” doesn’t mean that it was half as successful as it coulda/woulda/shoulda been.
This is your “when you’ve had luck with a hammer, everything looks like a nail” post.
Justin Connollyon 04 Feb 09
No. It’s a cliche because it’s true. When you do something right, there’s no guarantee doing the same thing again will work. To think that would be a failure in itself. The ‘I’ve done something good, let’s do it again, and again, and again” philosophy is a hindrance to innovation. Microsoft – I rest my case. What, with this and this: http://tinyurl.com/d3lr8s I’m wondering if there isn’t a new editorial policy at SvN. It used to be useful.
paulon 04 Feb 09
Of all the happy-clappy posts to /svn I think this one may be the king: it reads like something from the Little Book of Calm. (For “Black Books” fans I highly recommend reading Jason’s third paragraph aloud, as if spoken by Mannie after he ingests the LBOC.)
MLon 04 Feb 09
So many people get frozen trying to build something for fear of failing. The idea that your ‘failures’ are just part of the path to succeeding is something that many people don’t get.
It’s interesting how much of the “learn from failure” ethos showing up in the comments here is more about being ok with taking risks and realizing that failing isn’t that bad than it is about actually studying the things that go wrong. Makes you wonder how much of the idea’s value is as a motivational tool.
NewWorldOrderon 04 Feb 09
The overall theme of the post is pretty commonsensical but framed in a provocative way. Yes, what you did right is often times more valuable than what you did wrong—because success begets desirable results; whereas failure doesn’t (which is why it’s called failure).
Learning from failure becomes uberly valuable when you have no successes to speak of.
ratchetcaton 04 Feb 09
I’m saying that you now have one path that works.
I’m not sure you really do. Let’s say success or failure occurs in a given context. How likely are we to encounter the same context - and meet with similar success or failure - in the future? In a random universe?
Certainly, we can train ourselves to recognize patterns which are likely to lead to success or failure in some contexts. However, no path is guaranteed to lead where we expect in a random universe.
(Given that, should we really concern ourselves with questions of success and failure? Or should we 1) expose ourselves to opportunity and 2) learn how to properly hedge our ventures?)
Anonymous Cowardon 04 Feb 09
Billon 04 Feb 09
This post will become relevant as soon as people STOP MAKING THE SAME MISTAKE TWICE. Personally, I’m not going to hold my breath.
Mark Weisson 04 Feb 09
“Everything is a learning experience. Good and bad, there’s something to be learned.”
Roads we are on are always changing, a successful road in the past does not guarantee success in the future. So I think we need to always be learning from the roads we take and the roads other people take. Constantly evaluating both so that we can make the best judgment when it comes to picking our path. That way we can switch roads, before they hit a dead end.
Hopefully, that makes sense to someone.
Douglas Sjoquiston 04 Feb 09
For me, “fail early and often” means push the boundaries on what you are doing, whether it is coding, speaking, skating, skiing, whatever.
It is important to find the edges of your ability and knowledge so you know both what you can do, and what you still need to learn.
I agree that when studying your past, you have a lot to learn from what did work. But I think you need to study both failures and successes together to try to find those edges—what was the critical step (or steps) that might have turned one into the other.
memoon 04 Feb 09
if anything is overrated its (37signals) -
Quit trying to walk everyone down the EXACT OPPOSITE path you, yourself took – just because it reinforces the conflated idea/myth you pretend to embody doesn’t make it any less dubious.
clifyton 04 Feb 09
I’m wondering if anyone at 37s actually has any psychology background at all.
Study after study proves that we learn from our failures, as well as the failures of others. The problem with learning from successes is that there is a lot of LUCK in a success…especially when dealing with others. You might do the same thing 10 times and fail 9 times, but if you are only looking at the one time, you do yourself a disservice.
Really…why does it seem that most of these sorts of posts come from the I Ain’t Need No Edumacation side of life. Take any 101 level behavioral class and you find that learning from failure is not overrated.
Ziad Hussainon 04 Feb 09
The idea here is good, i.e. model good ideas, and success. Don’t study what not to do. However, as it is framed it is a false dichotomy. Most people don’t agonize over “should I study success, or study failure?”
Most people who fail while trying to model what they know to be successful or what will work, and it fails anyway.
When Edison talks about failing a bunch of light bulbs before getting it right, it is doubtful he wasn’t focusing on what he thought would be successful first.
The principle of learn from your failures could be rephrased as being agile and incremental, and I think I know a company that is a big advocate of such philosophy… :)
Luke Visinonion 04 Feb 09
Does anybody understand that he was not saying that you shouldn’t learn from your failures?? He never said that. Let me repeat that. HE NEVER SAID THAT. Fuck.
Joe Casabonaon 04 Feb 09
You make it seem like studying your failures implies not studying your successes. Assess everything and take the good and bad.
We don’t go in hoping to fail so we learn from it. We should learn from everything we do.
I really like this blog and your products and you’re obviously a very successful company, but I really feel like you just picked a controversial headline and then tried to justify it.
Devanon 04 Feb 09
@paul – ROFLMAO…Reading para 3 as ‘Mannie’ as you suggested puts a whole new spin on it – it is hilarious.
from a huge Black Books fan…
Benon 04 Feb 09
Geez, why does everyone get so offended? Obviously Jason’s view has some merit. See: super successful company with products most people love to use, an involved staff, etc. It’s not like 37s is just a consulting blog, they actually have a real business that practices what they preach…and it seems to be working!
Y’all are just pissed because no one reads your blog or buys your products.
-Faridon 04 Feb 09
Great Post !
Failure has indeed become more fashionable and acceptable over the years – and to the extent that it removes your fear of trying things out it’s a great way to go.
But the trouble always starts when you try to find the one big lesson from either a failure or a success. There are so many things that lead up to a success or to a failure that one must approach any post-analysis with caution.
As long as you can separate the incidental from the core causes – both success and failure can be learning experiences.
As long as you accept that you will never learn the whole truth about why it happened, never discover a magic formula that will work every time in the future, and that the real battle is to take some wisdom from the past and to know where and how to apply it in the future – you’ll learn from everything.
Ryanon 04 Feb 09
What a big controversy about nothing.
You can’t pre-determine if a particular effort is going to result in success or failure. The point is, if you try something… learn from it regardless of how it turned out. Isn’t that the point everyone is trying to make?
Ross Belmonton 04 Feb 09
I’ve found it’s pretty easy to “learn from failure” in the sense that the huge blunders I’ve witnessed (or been a part of) naturally stick with me. In my head, I’m thinking, “whatever I do, I know not to do THAT again.”
To me, this piece of advice reads as, “don’t take for granted what worked. Think about it, continue it and expand on it.” I think it’s surprisingly easy to overlook what you’ve already mastered.
Jesus A. Domingoon 04 Feb 09
Very good post. Currently my favorite :)
MattHon 04 Feb 09
This post reminds me of the nonsense saying “same difference”.
Rémi Guyoton 04 Feb 09
Different world, same story.
In his classic juggling book, “The complete juggler”, Dave Finnigan kept saying that ‘drop is a sign of progress.
A few years later, Charlie Dancey reacted, in “The Encyclopaedia of ball juggling”: Juggling author says that a ‘drop is a sign of progress’. It isn’t. It means that you have made a mistake.
Couldn’t agree more.
Nivion 04 Feb 09
Peter Drucker wrote, “Focus on opportunities rather than problems… Unless there is a true catastrophe, problems are not discussed in management meetings until opportunities have been analyzed and properly dealt with.”
Think about a feedback loop within a feedback loop as shown here http://bit.ly/1tXDUL.
The inner loop corrects failures. It corrects deviations from the plan. The outer loop exploits successes. It changes the plan to exploit opportunities and bypass problems.
The inner loop focuses on the efficiency of the plan, the outer loop focuses on the effectiveness of the plan.
The performance of the inner loop is determined by your ability to observe problems and correct your course to get back on plan. At Toyota, they say, “No problem is problem.” The performance of the outer loop is determined by your ability to exploit opportunities.
The question isn’t whether learning for success or failure is better. The question is when is learning from success or failure better. Thanks for a post that got me thinking!
Hendrik Volkmeron 04 Feb 09
I think you can learn from failures as well as successes but it’s much harder to learn from success than from failure. Why? Whereas it’s clear most of the time what caused the failure and therefore you know what to avoid in the future, the factors of success are much harder to identify.
Consider this exampe: You might think that your superduper marketing campaign caused the raise in new customers. But in reality it was just luck and there was no actual causal connection between the the campaign and the raise in customers. So you start doing a similar campaign again and it fails (because this time there is no luck involved and the campaign wasn’t really good). In comparison: When you don’t get a single customer out of your campaign you can say more easily that something was wrong with the campaign.
I think that you shouldn’t focus on learning from mistakes but I also think failures provide valuable lessons and the causes of failures are more often easier to identify than the causes of success. So when you learn from successes be sure that you learn the right thing… or at least aware that you might learn something wrong.
KHon 04 Feb 09
For me it’s a good thing because it means you’re progressing, it means you’re trying something you’re not good at yet or something few have tried before.
I’m surprised to hear you think this way Jason, it must be more provocative than something else.
Christophe Francoon 04 Feb 09
I think there is a major misunderstanding about the expression “learning from one’s mistakes”.
You don’t learn from your mistakes when you think “it’s something that I should not do again”. You learn from your mistakes when you can think about it enough to find what you should have done instead, to make things right.
In other words, it’s not failure that make people learn from their mistakes, it’s finding ways to recover after the failure.
Even more, people are not generally working alone. Even if you know how to do things right, you’ll have one day people who will work for you, who may have less experience, who will make mistakes. And you’ll have to know what to do to correct their mistakes, which is often quite different than making things right from the very begining. Not to mention the frequent cases when you are given responsibility to an existing project, and you will have not only to tell how to make it right, but how to correct what has been made wrong.
I’ve known a project manager who was always bragging about how he never experienced failure, how his superior knowledge of the best development practices that he had learnt in school had made him directly reach success in every project he had worked in. Then one day, he was hired to work on a project that had been very poorly managed, basically people was waiting for a firefighter to save the project. When he looked at what had been developed, he was astonished : it was clearly wrong in many ways, but the problem was, he had never been in such a situation and simply couldn’t find a way to apply the such-called superior methods that he was advocating, since he always had used these method from the very begining of a project. So what he decided, was to discard everything, regardless of the fact that the software, even if it was difficult to develop and to maintain, was working properly, and made the team start it again from scratch. One year of hard work later, they weren’t even able to get to a point where they had a working app, and of course they hadn’t developed a single piece of what they should have done to go on with the project. In other words, instead of a buggy software that needed fixing, they had – after one whole year of work – nothing useful.
Then, he was fired, and so were almost every developer on the project that hadn’t already quit the company by themselves…
Knowing how to correct badly made things is at least as important, maybe even more, than knowing how to make things right from the very begining.
Ben Darlowon 04 Feb 09
I used to have a lot of time for the alternative viewpoints put across on this blog. This article, however, smacks simply of contrarianism.
What absolute rot. Just as likely? How on earth do you come to this realisation? Even if we were dealing with simple mathematics and the probability of a working solution was proportional to the number of possible outcomes, this wouldn’t be true. The insight you gain from making mistakes is quite frequently invaluable.
This new 37s mantra of reject virtually all accepted wisdom isn’t helpful; you’re simply breeding a new generation of delusional zealots who will make everybody else’s life more difficult.
DHHon 04 Feb 09
The glorification of learning from failure seems at least as fraught with opportunity for bad take aways. People constantly ascribe their failures to “we just didn’t have money enough”, “if we had only had more time”, or “if just the market would have been better”, which seems to often be the exactly wrong take away, but it protects the ego.
Rather than taking the failures as “my idea just wasn’t very good”, “I tried to do way too much”, or “nobody cared enough to pay for it”.
Sidenote: Ben, I love the “you’re corrupting the youth” charge. If someone isn’t trying to cry out “but what about the children”, then where would we be :)?
Gnubeutelon 04 Feb 09
“Studying your successes” sounds like “It works on my machine”. You have to know what can go wrong. Or whatever you do will break when someone is not using the golden path.
Markon 04 Feb 09
DHH, what you’re describing are those who excuse their failure, which is not by any measure, learning from it.
Lisa Clarksonon 04 Feb 09
This entire discussion is abstract to the point of uselessness.
People fill it up with specifics that only support their perceptions.
Ben Darlowon 04 Feb 09
I’m still at a loss as to what exactly it is you’re suggesting is the preferred approach to learning from what works or doesn’t work. If learning from mistakes is bad, what is the alternative? Not learning? Repeating the mistakes? I don’t understand what your ideal would be. Perhaps that’s because the original post is so nonsensical as to defy logical interpretation, or perhaps it’s just because I don’t get it. Fill me in.
David, I’m sure you’d appreciate that I’m not implying you’re doing something insidious, but it is important for 37signals to realise that because of their standing their words carry a lot of weight with people who are learning their trade in this profession. That means that you are responsible for the trends you encourage.
Unless of course you all privately decided that it’d be a real laugh to post ridiculous subjects and see how many of your puppet following would agree with you? I could see a funny side to that sort of practical joke.
Keithon 04 Feb 09
Penicillin. Rocketry. Flight. Understanding the nature of Light. X-Rays. Teflon. Superglue. Micro-organisms. Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. The Varna Necropolis. Copper. Viagra. Brandy. Vaccination. Librium & Vallium. Insulin.
All these discoveries and too many more to list were a result of mistakes, failures, or accidents yet nobody questions their impact on our lives.
ratchetcaton 04 Feb 09
People fill it up with specifics that only support their perceptions.
Well stated, Lisa.
Mitchon 04 Feb 09
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana
While is good to focus on the positive. The negative also has a great deal you can learn from. If you already have the lemons, make lemonade.
GeeiWonderon 04 Feb 09
The glorification of learning from failure seems at least as fraught with opportunity for bad take aways.
Really strong point.
Stephen Jameson 04 Feb 09
The reason that saying is so popular is that people are creatures of habit, and it is easiest to do things the way you have done them before. Try programming with different naming conventions for every web site.
It is harder to change than it is to be inspired. Once the ground is plowed, you are in a groove. I don’t think “learn from your mistakes” is about focusing on studying the mistakes (albeit that needs to be done). It’s about not repeating history.
DHHon 04 Feb 09
Ben, the point is one of weight. Jason is saying that he thinks that there is put too much weight on “learning from failures” as a way of moving forward and not enough weight on “learning from success”. I agree. It’s not that there’s no lessons in failure, of course there is.
Brandon Fergusonon 04 Feb 09
I think there’s a key difference between failing early for failing sake (because failure is gooooood) and failing early as a method for mitigating risk and gathering feedback. “Failing” early isn’t so much about failure as it is about getting to a point where failure – or success – is even possible. The idea is to get people past their fear of failing and for them to keep pushing stuff out there to find out what’s working (and similarly what’s not working) so they can do more of that. Not to have them just fail because hey failing is fun.
Succeed Early and Often is too obvious to be of any use – it’s more of a “Yeah no kidding – that’s kind of the point”.
Matt McKnighton 04 Feb 09
On general principle, one shouldn’t rely too much on platitudes. However, the real reason these statements resonate is that there is real tendency for people and organizations to suffer from excessive fear of failure. By reminding people that there are benefits to be gained, even from failures, one can mediate that fear.
Bradon 04 Feb 09
Although your logic seems sound, I don’t agree with your conclusion.
Unlike failure, success cannot often be boiled down to one or two correct decisions or actions.
It therefore makes assessing the success (how do I repeat this success next time) much more difficult. Failures, on the other hand, can often be attributed to one or two bad actions or decisions that derailed the process.
That’s my experience anyway.
Marcuson 04 Feb 09
Rings a little hollow. “Hey guys you know those failures that really really sucked, where you put yourself out there and fell on your arse? Well, you didn’t learn as much you hoped, and I’m here at top-o-the-mountain-aren’t-we-grande-central to tell you that the truth is you might just suck a little than us.”
Chris Stegneron 04 Feb 09
Whether you should learn from failure or from success all depends on the situation.
For instance you can’t learn from the success of never touching something hot and not burning your hand. Granted I don’t have to put my hand in lawn mower to know it would hurt but I did have to hit my hand against something hard that hurt for me to learn that. Thus my success was a product of learning from my previous failure.
The most entertaining arguments are always from a pure black or white perspective, unfortunately almost everything in life worth speaking up on lives in a grey area.
Raifon 04 Feb 09
Hi, I don’t mean to detract from what your saying which makes good sense, but one cliche about failure, “Fail Fast” does have value. It doesn’t say learn from your mistakes or anything like that but it does say, if you did screw the pooch, then the sooner you find out the easier it is too fix. Fail fast so you don’t build a ton of stuff around a faulty base. Raif
Toby Hoon 04 Feb 09
I think that although what you are saying may be right, the idea of embracing failure is more motivational. When you fail, that’s the time when you need a lift in your spirit the most. When you are already a success, you don’t need to read another book or hear another lecture about how to succeed – you’ve already found the way, more or less. Given that, isn’t it obvious that “Learn from your mistakes” is so popular in motivation and teaching material?
Alexon 04 Feb 09
The problem with analyzing your successes, is that there are too many variables (in most things) to decide what made you succeed. Maybe it’s not focusing on your successes or failures, but comparing both your successes and failures. Sometimes you do a lot right when you fail, and a lot wrong when you succeed. It’s better to remove those things you are doing wrong from your successes to make your successes more successful, right?
I like your post. Makes you think, and gets a lot of peoples’ thoughts on the table :-)
Morleyon 04 Feb 09
I think “learning from success” doesn’t have any pithy sayings because everyone does it. It’s obvious. People already do it. It’s why hockey players always tap the goal posts before the game. Learning from success is already baked into our brains.
“Learn from failure” is the counterintuitive advice, so it’s one people are always trying to remind us about.
It’s like this example: you never see any ads that say, “eat more meat.” (You see ads for types of meat because they’re competing with each other.) It’s because most people already know to eat meat. But people don’t eat enough veg, so you always see “eat more fruits and vegs.”
People are just trying to get us to eat more veg.
Ben Darlowon 04 Feb 09
David: so, it was just a badly phrased article; that’s not quite so bad.
I think I understand what you’re getting at, but it’s still predicated on an underlying assumption that people try to fail. In most cases I’m sure that isn’t the case, and those offering advice about learning through failure are merely saying don’t be afraid to try just because you’re worried you’ll fail. This is something entirely different, and actually rings true with previous comments you’ve made about premature optimisation; if we only ever set out with perfection in mind, nothing would ever get finished.
Of course, if we’re really talking about people who fail on purpose then this entire article is rhetorical and can be filed away under S for stating the bleeding obvious.
Weixi Yenon 04 Feb 09
Russ Arbuthnoton 04 Feb 09
Just wanted to add my vote that I couldn’t disagree more with this article.
We get closer to the truth through failure, not through confirmation of success.
Auguston 04 Feb 09
There is a great deal of emphasis placed on learning from an accepting failure because most people are going to fail at most things most of the time. For every successful job application, product, romance, or whatever, there’s going to be a dozen or a hundred or even a thousand people that were after the same thing who didn’t get it. Who succeeds and can totally be about individual merits and choices, but even more often isn’t; it’s blind, dumb luck. Successful people hate to acknowledge the truth in this because it takes away the idea that their successes are always about how good they are, and people who have failed hate this idea because it takes away some of the motivation to keep trying. Like most truism, this particular homily isn’t about explaining how the world actually works (most truisms, folk wisdom or ‘conventional’ wisdom is/are complete nonsense), it’s to keep us from giving up in the face of adversity and setbacks. After all, if you’re not trying, you won’t even have the chance to get lucky.
Kevin Mildenon 04 Feb 09
Daniel Burka nailed it. Not fearing failure and understanding that it is only part of the process is how to overcome it. Understanding that you won’t get it perfect and you will need to continually improve on the original idea. Learning from your successes (if you have some to draw on) is equally important.
I don’t know if this article I wrote prompted this post but maybe someone will find it useful.
Embrace failure, Posted on Nov 02, 2008 by Kevin Milden
Realityon 05 Feb 09
Thank you for the enlightenment Jason.
I have now learned that it’s a good idea to take note of what works, and then keep doing it. Pure genius. Before this breakthrough, I was certainly destined for failure.
MichalTon 05 Feb 09
I suppose when you’ve got few choices, it’s best to look for positives; if you’ve got many choices it’s easier to first weed out the obvious missteps.
Marko Lokason 06 Feb 09
I don’t think I understand your post… why would I focus on one thing and ignore the other, or give less importance to the other? Why would I make a distinction, which learning is better? Why wouldn’t I take all things in account, the good and the bad ones, and the ones in between, and learn from the whole process that happened, or is maybe still going on?
I think that things are rarely just “success” or “failure”, and that those terms very often oversimplify something that is much more complex to describe, because it’s almost always a process, and never a series of chopped-off and unrelated stories, to speak metaphorically.
woodon 06 Feb 09
screw all this faliure crap what is the point in doing anything if you put hours and hours of your time into something and all you come out with is a big F it makes no sense to do something if all you do is fail at it. long statement short, dont even try move onto something that you are not wasting your time with.
corey lawsonon 06 Feb 09
Read in some buddhist book recently…
Student: “Master, how did you find enlightenment?”
Master: “I made many mistakes…”
Maybe it’s just me, but there’s more depth in learning from one’s mistakes. For one, they can be painful. For another, sometimes the lessons aren’t initially obvious or are far different than what they appear on the surface. And, at least our mistakes tend to be quite obvious to us, compared to successes. And sometimes the successes at the time may be mistakes in the long term…
I much agree with Marko Lokas.
Jason Liebeon 08 Feb 09
I commented on this the day it was posted, but now after much thinking about it the article has changed my opinion on this matter.
I’ll summarize by saying that learning from mistakes, in my opinion, is merely survivability.
Knowing what not to do can keep you alive, but knowing what to do is needed to thrive.
CJ Curtison 09 Feb 09
Failure and success, whatever you hold those to be, are both relative to your understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve. Fully understanding requires knowing the situation from both sides…things that work AND things that don’t.
It’s obviously not a bad thing to start out right and skip the failure altogether. But the longer we go without failure, the more you can lose perspective in what success really is.
As the old adage goes, the only people that know where the edge truly lies are the people that had the guts to fall off.
Rob Cameronon 10 Feb 09
“My imperfections and failures are as much a blessing from God as my successes and my talents and I lay them both at his feet.” -Gandhi
This discussion is closed.