How You Must Think About Failure

By Leo Gura - July 20, 2013 | 3 Comments

Learn how to think about failure in a totally different way to exponentially increase your results in all parts of life.

I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeeded.

— Michael Jordan

Is failure bad? Do you beat yourself up for failing? Are you afraid of making mistakes?

If you said Yes to any of the above, your success in life will be extremely limited and you will never even come close to fulfilling your full potential. Permanently reframing how you see failure is critical to improving your success across the board.

Changing How You See Failure

Most of us have been taught, from an early age, to view failure as a bad thing. Some part of this conditioning comes from parents and society, but the biggest part simply comes from within yourself: when you set your mind on a goal, you naturally favor the most direct path. Anything that takes you off the direct path, you tend to judge as bad.

Success represents the 1% of your work which results from the 99% that is called failure.

— Soichiro Honda

This all makes sense on the surface, and it works to get you moderate results, but if you want to be extremely successful in life, you need to permanently change how you think about failure.

Unfortunately, this model of the success doesn’t place enough weight on the importance of failure in the whole process. Failure is paramount to success! I’m not talking about some positive thinking mumbo-jumbo. I’m talking very practically. It’s actually a fact — the way the world works — that failure is a feedback mechanism that generates understanding. Without failure, you simply cannot be successful in most of the interesting endeavors of life.

Right now when you experience failure you probably think, “Shit! Arggghhhh! Why? ” You probably also think, “If only things went smoothly. If only I had what I want right now!” Basically, “Failure = Bad”.

As “realistic” as this way of thinking sounds, it’s total nonsense. When you think “falilure = bad”, you are being naive. Your mind is so attached to the outcome that it’s looking for the shortest, most energy-efficient route towards your goal. Unfortunately, this is a terribly ineffective way to think about success because it discounts the role failure plays in the equation. Viewing failure as an evil ruins your performance and undermines your ability to persist.

Instead, I want you to start thinking, “Failure = Good”.

Failure = Good

“Failure is good”. This is how you think from now on.

Failure is good because it helps you know what doesn’t work, giving you valuable clues for how to refocus your time and energy. Failure enables the trial-and-error process of learning.

As dumb as a trial-and-error may seem, it’s actually a great way to master many things. In fact, fundamentally, all learning boils down to trial-and-error: you take some action, observe the results, then adjust your actions. After doing this long enough you become a master. The only drawback is that you will have to stomach a lot of failure — again and again and again.

There’s a tendency to dismiss the effectiveness of trial-and-error. People tend to think its inefficient. Then these same people get stuck because they refuse to accept trial-and-error as a valid approach. The truth is, trial-and-error is guaranteed to work. An even deeper truth is that these people don’t have the stomach for failure, or think about the whole process in a disempowering way.

Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.

— Winston Churchill

Getting good at anything simply means you know what will work, and also what will not work. It’s a two-sided coin. Experts in anything know both sides extremely well. Your goal should be to become an expert in whatever endeavor you undertake, not to look for a flimsy shortcut to success.

Right now you’re probably pursuing success by looking only at the avenues that lead towards your goal (shortcuts). This is a reasonable strategy, but not ideal because it fails to account for the realities of the learning process. Eventually this leads to unresourceful inner game. If you’re always looking for shortcuts, of course you’ll be disappointed when you fail to find them, and you will tend to give up.

Be an Explorer

Picture a crazed goldminer panning for gold. As he pans the gravel, his mind is filled with dreams of the sweet life. He’s frenetic. He reeks of desperation. “Is this a piece of gold?!”, he exclaims. “Sigh… No.” “How about this?!” “Sigh… No.” “How about this?!”

Now picture a 16th century explorer, like Columbus, navigating uncharted territory. As his ship cuts through the water he’s filled with excitement about what’s he’ll find up ahead. He doesn’t really care what he finds. He’s not here to judge the land, he just wants to see it for what it is. “Oh wow, a new island! Let’s go ashore and see what’s there!”

When you’re focused on attaining your goals using the shortest possible route, you are that crazed goldminer. Instead, I want you to be the explorer. See the difference? Who do you think will be more successful in the long run?

Think of reality as a vast vast vast possibility space — a web of actions you could take that will generate various results: throw an apple up in the air and it will fall; stick your hand in the fire and it will hurt; drink a glass of water and it will quench your thirst, etc.

In and of themselves none of these action-result combinations have any meaning, but given a particular goal, you will find some actions extremely effective while others, not so much.

I want you to think about pursuing success by exploring the entire possibility space of whatever domain you want to master. You are looking for workable avenues, sure, but you are very curious about all avenues. You are more interested in the higher level mission of exploration than you are in finding any specific result.

In wisdom gathered over time I have found that every experience is a form of exploration.

— Ansel Adams

Being an explorer means you are a careful observer. You don’t judge what you find. Sometimes what you find will work, other times it won’t, but this doesn’t bother you because you’re exploring. You just want to know what’s out there. You aren’t desperate for everything to work out. You are happy learning about what works as well as what doesn’t work.

How much more resourceful it the explorer mindset versus the goldminer mindset? Do you think you’ll accomplish more through curiosity or desperation?

Do you see every failure as a brick in your palace?

Seriously! Whatever you’re doing, every time you fail, you learn one more thing that doesn’t work, making it easier to find the thing that will work. Every failure is a valuable reference experience. And even repeated failures are valuable because they build emotional leverage and prove that a particular avenue is completely untenable.

From now on you will think, “Failure is good.” “I failed? Great! Now I know this way doesn’t work. It can’t possibly work because I’ve tried it again and again and it keeps failing. Now I can move on!”

Failing on Purpose

Adopting the “failure is good” mindset — seeing yourself as exploring a vast possibility space — will free you from fear of failure. This is a powerful shift. You start to embrace failure because you recognize it as the engine that drives your success. You notice yourself looking for strategic ways to fail on purpose in order to learn faster.

Failing on purpose is an awesome strategy for rapid learning. The point is to strategically test out the extremes of the possibility space so you get a quick birds-eye-view of the landscape. Your aim, like playing a game of Mastermind, is to eliminate all the possibilities that do not work. This technique also tells your subconscious mind that you are patient and persistent.

Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.

— Dale Carnegie

Let’s take a look at some examples:

If you’re learning a new piece of software, like Photoshop, instead of worrying about screwing up the canvas, jump in and test out which buttons and actions lead to undesirable results.

If you’re learning to cook, instead of worrying about screwing up the dish, jump in and throw a bunch of ingredients together and test out which combinations lead to inedible results.

If you’re learning to market your business online, instead of deliberating for weeks about which ad platform to use, jump in and devise a way to test out several platforms with the aim of eliminating the ones that give bad ROI.

If you’re learning to diet, instead of worrying about which diet is the best, jump in and try several different diets to test out which ones don’t fit your lifestyle.

In all these cases you’re exploring. Exploration is not totally aimless — you obviously have some goals in mind — but you’re open to seeing other, less optimal, alternatives. If you do this long enough, eventually you develop a robust expertise grounded in reality. If you only concern yourself with ferreting out the most optimal avenues, you will develop limited expertise and you will always be afraid of losing your success.

Getting Out of Your Head

Another advantage of the explorer mindset is that puts priority on action. When you replace endless deliberation with action — even wrong action — you will tend to progress faster.

Action is the foundational key to all success.

— Pablo Picasso

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with planning and deliberation, but moving quickly into action tends to be a net positive for most people. Most people have the problem of over-deliberating and procrastinating because they are deathly afraid of making a mistake. Instead of trying to dodge the mistake, make the mistake faster. Design circumstances in a way that lets you get all the newbie mistakes out of the way as quickly as possible.

Consider the example of starting your own business. If it’s your first time starting a business, the best advice is to just jump in as quickly as possible. Chances are your first business idea will peter out very quickly anyway, or evolve into something entirely different, so don’t be too attached to one idea. Instead, focus on becoming a expert business creator — to understand how business works on a high level.

If you spend too much time thinking about which avenues will work and which ones won’t, you’ll probably just waste your time. Why? Because as a newbie you don’t have enough experience to know. The only way to know is to do it and make course-corrections based on feedback. Especially if you’re starting a new endeavor that you don’t have any expertise in, you will find that deliberation leads to paralysis by analysis.

Reference Experiences are King

I want you to start to think of reference experiences at THE MOST IMPORTANT and VALUABLE things in the world. But what are reference experience?

A reference experience is a particularly vivid and elucidating action-result combination.

When I was young, I observed that nine out of ten things I did were failures. So I did ten times more work.

— George Bernard Shaw

Think of that first time you went in to ask for a raise, or that time you slipped off your diet, or that time you got so wasted you said you would never do it again, or that time you said something horribly offensive to a co-worker.

All of those are reference experiences. Really, all experiences are reference experiences, but the best ones are those that point out a clear cause-and-effect relationship: “If I do X, Y will happen.” Reference experiences are how we learn.

Most people never get the success they want because they are tricked into thinking that results are the most important and valuable things in the world. Actually, they aren’t! Reference experiences are far more valuable.

While results are good — lots of money, a car, a house, fame, a cushy job — reference experiences are better. Why? Because reference experiences are what allow you to generate the results. Think of it like this, would you rather own a diamond or a diamond mine?

When you lose your money, your house, your car, your fame, or your job, the experience and knowledge contained in your head (reference experiences) will enable you to rebuild. But if you haven’t invested in yourself — if you haven’t built up a repository of reference experiences — you will be like the squirrel that neglected to stash acorns for the coming winter.

Success without reference experiences is fragile. This kind of success looks great from the outside — to other people — but to you it will feel horrible because you will know that it’s not grounded in anything solid. With shallow success like this you will live in constant fear because you will know you can’t consistently reproduce it.

Your ultimate strategy in life should be to maximize exposure to valuable reference experiences. The more the better. The stronger the better. There is no failure. There are only reference experiences.

Internalizing the Explorer Mindset

Hopefully everything I’ve said so far makes sense, but the really tricky part is internalizing these ideas. I can talk about reframing failure all day long, and you can agree with me and understand everything logically, but when you get into the office tomorrow, you will still act out the old paradigm of “Faliure = Bad” because you’re just so used to operating this way.

The only way to internalize the explorer mindset is to put it in action, consistently, over a period of months. Here’s how: the next time you try to learn something, or try to achieve success in something, feel your fear of failure, notice your natural tendency to want to just get the result, and act the opposite.

If you’re learning Photoshop, try using a tool you think will screw up the canvas. If you’re cooking a dish, throw in a new ingredient, or cook it using a different method. If you’re dieting, add a couple of new items to your list of approved foods. If you’re working out at the gym, try incorporating some new exercises. If you’re studying for a test, try studying in a totally different way.

As you try various possibilities, when you hit upon the inevitable case that leads to failure, reframe it in your mind as, “Cool! This is valuable information. Now I know not to do this in the future. I also now understand why this doesn’t work.”

As you do this more and more you will start to internalize the explorer mindset. You will also start to see that much of your success depends on your failures — what is a bad avenue for today’s goal might be an excellent avenue for tomorrow’s.

Setting Reasonable Limits

It should go without saying that you want to make your failures strategic. I’m not telling you to bet your life savings on the roulette table just to learn the dangers of gambling (although for someone with a gambling addiction such a dramatic action might actually be necessary to drive the lesson home).

Generally speaking, though, your failures should be low cost. Look for failures you can make without a lot of time, energy, or money invested on your part.

To find out if the risks are too high, just ask, “What’s the worst that can happen?” You’ll be surprised to discover that for most endeavors the cost of failure is very low — much lower than you thought. Here are some examples:

Public Speaking: worst case scenario you botch the speech and go home embarrassed — not a high cost.

Photoshop: worst case scenario you ruin a canvas — not a high cost.

Cooking: worst case scenario you ruin one meal — not a high cost.

Dieting: worst case scenario it doesn’t work — not a high cost.

Stock Market: worst case scenario you lose all your money — very high cost, so use more caution here, although, a case can be made that even losing your life savings isn’t as bad as you think it is.

Example of Embracing Failure

When I went through my life coach training program with IPEC I spent about 100 hours on the phone in practice coaching sessions. I knew from the get-to that becoming a good coach meant putting in the hours. To develop mastery, I decided to coach as many hours as I could.

But I had two choices about how to approach my training: A) I could stress about every session, trying to make it perfect, or B) I could explore how coaching works and find out which techniques work better than others.

I chose option B — to explore. This meant I didn’t care about screwing up. I wasn’t so much trying to be an effective coach as I was trying to build up a mental model of what effective coaching looks like. I knew that once I had that model, I would naturally be effective, and no one could ever take that away from me.

So how did this mindset actually play out in my behaviors?

Some sessions I would deliberately do things I was instructed not to do just so that I could prove to myself that they didn’t work, or that they did! I would then analyze why certain questions and techniques worked while others didn’t.

The difference might seem subtle, but I felt it. About half-way through my training I made the shift from the goldminer to the explorer mindset. As soon as I did, I noticed my sessions became more experimental and I became less nervous about doing the wrong thing.

As a result, I feel I developed a more robust understanding of life coaching than if had just stuck to my instructions. Moreover, the whole process was much more fun. Instead of stressing over being perfect, I felt playful and adventurous. Today I’m a better coach because I have reference experiences from past coaching sessions that inform my understanding. I took the theory given to me by my instructors and made it my own through a process of trial-and-error. I embraced failure and it felt great!

Bottom Line: Failure is a critical component of robust success. Failure = Good. Work to internalize the Explorer mindset, placing great value on collecting reference experiences.

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