Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

The Failure Fetish

A fetish for failure has been sweeping the blogosphere, the Twitterverse, and the broader market for ideas for a couple of years now. It’s ridiculous, and here’s why.

Failing is cool. Failing is great. Failing is the best thing you can do. A fetish for failure has been sweeping the blogosphere, the Twitterverse, and the broader market for ideas for a couple of years now. It’s ridiculous, and here’s why.

Thought leaders, social innovators, and TED talkers have been praising failure as an engine of learning with a zeal that borders on the evangelistic. Failure certainly can offer a lesson; when you mess something up, you often get a clue about how to do it better. Even absent a useful lesson, failure gives you one data point: your original approach didn’t work.

Failure fetishists tell you to fail fast, so that you can learn and adapt as quickly as possible. You may indeed save time by failing fast, but what about the quality of your failures? The fastest way to fail is just to throw every possible solution at a problem – a sort of brute force method. You might get a lot of information this way, but how much better will you understand the roots of the problem? Sometimes it’s worth taking time to think about the dynamics of the system rather than using rapid-fire trial-and-error.

This is especially true when each failure has a discrete cost. Imagine a platoon of soldiers trying to find the best way out of enemy territory. Failing fast would mean immediately sending soldiers in every possible direction and waiting to hear which of them made it back behind the lines. Of course, the rest would be killed or captured. In this case, a more judicious approach aimed at succeeding the first time – looking at maps, doing reconnaissance, radioing other platoons – might lead to a higher survival rate.

Now consider an advertising agency. Every time it wants to try out a new campaign, it hires a focus group. To fail fast, it would have to show dozens of iterations of its ads to these groups, learning a little bit each time. But people in focus groups get paid; if the account budget only allowed for three or four iterations, the agency would have to spend extra time trying to hit the mark – or at least get close – the first time.

Aiming to succeed the first time also helps to avoid bad habits. Imagine a concert pianist trying to learn a new piece. She could dive into the music, cruising through every passage at full tempo until she played a wrong note, then redoing those passages until she played them correctly. Yet along the way, she would create a jumble of useless and wrong muscular memories. For this reason, some of the best teachers suggest playing a new piece as slowly as needed to avoid all mistakes, then gradually increasing the tempo. Learning the piece correctly the first time builds a stronger foundation for the pianist’s interpretation of the music.

Similarly, a baseball player trying to perfect his swing could quickly try out a series of different strokes during batting practice in the pre-season. Most would fail to improve his hitting, but, as soon as one seemed to work, he could refine it with more trial-and-error. Of course, with this method he might miss another swing that was even more effective. Alternatively, he could try to succeed the first time by using simulations and expert advice to zero in on the most natural, efficient swing for his body, and then start from there. This approach would probably reduce his risk of injury, too.

Failure is a fetish and a growing fad. As with many fads, its adherents focus on benefits without considering costs. This is fine for the happy warriors and self-promoters who ply their trade in auditoriums and bookstores. But in real life, there’s something to be said for success.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
Keep reading Show less

Meet Stella — the pup who knows how to use 29 human words

"What a shock," said no dog lover ever.

Surprising Science
  • A speech language pathologist has taught her puppy Stella to use 29 words.
  • Stella "speaks" by stepping on large buttons programmed with recordings of words.
  • The dog expresses her desires, comments on household events, and offers opinions.
Keep reading Show less

Live on Tuesday | Personal finance in the COVID-19 era

Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.

How DNA revealed the woolly mammoth's fate – and what it teaches us today

Scientists uncovered the secrets of what drove some of the world's last remaining woolly mammoths to extinction.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Surprising Science

Every summer, children on the Alaskan island of St Paul cool down in Lake Hill, a crater lake in an extinct volcano – unaware of the mysteries that lie beneath.

Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast