Learning From Failure
“You can learn so much from failure” is one of those comments that is both true and unhelpful, up there with “Just fake it til you make it”
Failure can be a teacher, or it can kill your enthusiasm.
I’ve experienced this first-hand, and am often approached by my friends and the teams I advise to help them process their perceived failures.
Here are some things that have helped me.
Digestion and allocation
A lot of failures seem to happen in times of great mental busyness.
There’s so much going on, with a lot of news hitting you in a short space of time.
Our brains find this hard to handle, and so we re-direct our attention to where it is most urgent.
This is like our fight-or-flight mechanisms that cause our stomachs to feel funny during times of crisis – that feeling is our body literally stopping digestion and re-allocating your blood flow to your hands and feet.
Once this moment has passed, you then have a lot to process.
This can be uncomfortable and inconvenient, but the best thing is to create blank space to let it happen without additional distractions.
· Going for a long walk
· Cleaning your house or car
· Swimming in the ocean
· Working out at the gym
· Playing a slow paced video game
· Cooking a large meal
The movie Layer Cake gives a good synopsis of this process:
“Meditation is concentrating the front of the mind on a mundane task, so the rest of the mind can find peace”.
This is where your brain replays these events, and starts to break them down into smaller components.
You can then begin to allocate these components into different buckets, such as:
Mistakes I could have prevented
These are a relief to acknowledge – naming them removes some of the guilt, and creates a resolve to never make these mistakes again.
Mistakes I could not have prevented
Another source of relief, it’s healthy to acknowledge the circumstances that would have been ridiculous to forecast.
You might have to forgive yourself for these errors.
Things that are quite normal but felt rough
A good category for young people, I often felt that the situations that made my life harder were unique to me.
It turns out that if you talk to people who are older/smarter than you, they’ll remind you that these difficulties are a part of life, and that while you may feel aggrieved, you probably shouldn’t put the blame upon yourself or anyone else.
Unfair treatment by other people
This isn’t about being vindictive, it’s just good to acknowledge that some of the contributing circumstances aren’t acceptable in the future.
Again, this creates the resolve to never let these things happen to you or your friends.
These are useful, because they allow you to name what really happened.
My guess is that you’ll have some of each, and by attributing them correctly, you remove the mental fog and can understand which elements of failure were within your control.
In the interests of full disclosure, I tend to lump a lot of concerns into the Mistakes I could have prevented bucket and feel guilty and the Unfair treatment by other people bucket and feel angry.
Over time I see that some things were not preventable, or were actually normal but felt rough at the time.
I also reallocate some mistakes back to myself, as I realise what I had done/failed to do.
You’re overthinking the embarrassment factor
Here’s a mixed blessing for you:
Nobody cares anywhere near as much as your brain thinks they do.
This cuts both ways; your achievements aren’t that impressive, and your failures aren’t that humiliating.
After about a year, nobody will care about your high school results, they’ll only care if you’re doing the right course or job right now.
After you graduate university, nobody cares about the institution or your grades, they only care if you’re competent and likeable.
After your project fails, nobody cares about why, they only care about whether you’ll be able to succeed in your next project.
This leads to an interesting phenomenon that caught me by surprise: the compression of experiences.
It took me months to work up the courage to quit my job at ANZ.
One of the reasons was because I was worried about having to explain why I would choose to leave “such a good job”.
I’d mentally prepared my justification, but noticed that it became shorter and shorter over time.
It turns out, my time at ANZ is now summarised in three sentences – and your failures will be as well.
This compression takes creativity, like the old expression “Please forgive the length of this letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one”.
They say that we try on stories like we try on clothes – seeing what suits us and rejecting those that are unflattering.
You get to refine your three sentences, and edit them to be both honest and concise.
Here’s a template you might like:
“In ____ I worked in ____.
Our aim was to ____ in order to ____
I struggled with ____ although we still managed to _____”
This approach acknowledges the purpose of the work, admits failure but also some wins or learnings.
Nobody has ever heard me say that and asked
“Hey Isaac, if I asked your supervisor from 2011 about how you managed the rollout of that new diagnostic tool, what would they tell me?”
That would be ridiculous, yet that’s the kind of thought that used to make me anxious.
When people ask me about my background, they’re only interested in what I can do for them.
Sometimes it’s to see if I’m an imposter (a very uncomfortable line of questioning), but more often it’s to see what sort of benefits I can bring to their business.
They don’t care about my failures, they want to know what’s in it for them.
That self-centredness is liberating.
Failure as an event
They say failure is an event, not a person.
e.g. you experience failure, but you yourself are not a failure.
This can be a relief, but it requires a growth mindset.
A fixed mindset is the voice in your head that says “I am not good at ___ and never will be”
A growth mindset is the voice in your head that says “I’m not good at ___ but I can learn”
If you’ve delivered a bad presentation, don’t know how to dance at weddings, can’t keep track of your money, dress poorly or had a business fall over, then I have good news:
These are all learned skills.
If you’re willing to acknowledge your failures as well as acknowledging your potential, then you’re able to get stronger.
Technical recovery and emotional recovery
When bouncing back from a failure, it’s worth splitting the recovery into two sections;
There are probably some mistakes that can be corrected, such as learning more about social media marketing, improving your public speaking habits, complying with your industry’s regulation etc.
These are straightforward.
Then there’s the emotional recovery – getting your confidence back.
This is why AFL coaches send their struggling players back to the second grade competition, to remind them that they’re still an elite athlete (or to send a message about their form).
It sounds tacky, but finding a way to give yourself a win can reset your emotional momentum.
I find that the more I struggle with a major project, the more I enjoy having smaller wins with my side project.
This doesn’t fix the major issues, but it rebalances my headspace, so I get more peace of mind from the side projects than I do from watching TV.
You’ve seen this with your friends – when someone has an ugly breakup, the best thing they can do is go out and meet new people.
Not with the expectation of another relationship, but because it reminds them that they have options and have value – a great distraction from their recent heartbreak.
Ego vs Setback
Here’s a confronting question for you:
What percentage of your grief is to do with a career setback, and what percentage is to do with the damage to your reputation/ego?
For example, if I were to work on a project and not tell anyone, submit it to an exhibition and then have nothing come of it, I’d probably feel alright.
If I were to publicly declare my talents then have nothing come of the work, I’d feel deflated.
In the book Status Anxiety, Alain De Botton quotes William James:
“Satisfaction with ourselves does not require us to succeed in every area of endeavour.
We are not always humiliated by failing at things, we are humiliated only if we first invest our pride and sense of worth in a given achievement, and then do not reach it…
So our self esteem in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and do.
It is determined by the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities. Thus:
Self Esteem = Success / Pretensions
This is a useful, if not brutal insight.
By lowering our pretensions, our setbacks do not present such a risk to our self-esteem.
Or as Tim Urban pointed out:
Happiness = Reality – Expectations
Decisions and Outcomes are separate
The test of a decision is not the outcome, it’s about whether or not it was the right move given the information that was available at the time.
It may well be that there were risks you took that would have played out differently 90% of the time.
That means the worst thing you can do is to stop taking risk.
Just because you’ve had a negative outcome doesn’t mean you made definitively wrong decisions.
This one haunted me back when TDi first started, and our first investment deal fell through.
My colleagues reminded me that any portfolio will have losing investments, and the shame was that it happened so early.
If it was the fifth or tenth deal, it would not have stung so much.
That was hard to accept, but I see the wisdom in it now.
I would keep playing through the “What If?” scenarios, lamenting the precautions we should have taken.
Frustratingly, extra precaution would have killed any good deal, so while it sounds nice, it would have had a neutral outcome at best.
Whilst we no longer have it as a prized case study, we do acknowledge that we took the right set of steps given the information that was available at the time.
I hope this has resonated with you, and that these subtle mental shifts help you learn from failure and allocate responsibility in a fair way.
The worst thing you can do is let this stop you from playing the next round of the game, or stop making more art.
I hope you get to turn your disappointment into fuel, and use your scars as motivation for yourself and for those you mentor in the future.