Failure: The Building Block of Success

Failure main ingredient of success

Never Fail to Fail.  Fail frequently; fail fast; and fail forward.

– Susan Wojcicki, Google Senior VP

As I mentioned in the post titled “Fearless,” I spent several years competing in full contact fighting (Muay Thai kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu).   Over the years, men would join our gym and many would leave after only a few weeks.  Skilled fighting is a learned art and an unnatural act.  Everyone starts out terrible.  You get your butt kicked constantly for the first few months.  You make endless mistakes, and you learn through pain.  Getting punched in the face or kicked across the legs teaches proper defense.    Bruising your shin on your opponent’s elbow or knee teaches you to conceal your kicks within combinations.

Most hopefuls walked through the door desperately wanting to believe they were special and talented.  They dreamed that fighting would come naturally to them; they were born to be champions.  They got a reality check and soon left to pursue other illusions.  The regulars won’t even bother to learn your name for the first 3 months.  Until then, you are just one more washout that hasn’t figured it out yet.

I noticed something else about the guys that didn’t quit but stayed on to become fighters.  The athletic men advanced quickly at first, but many would soon stagnate.  Very few of the small, weaker guys would stick it out, but those that refused to give up kept getting better and better and better.  As I struggled to improve, I began to notice that the small un-athletic guys would often progress faster than everyone else.  I was physically stronger and had superior endurance, so I could train harder and more frequently, and yet these small guys were improving faster than I was.

I realized that when you are strong and athletic, you can use your natural ability to compensate for your mistakes.  You escape the punishment and thus can keep making the same mistakes over and over without ever learning or improving.  When you are small and weak, you get punished for every single mistake, every single time.  You don’t have the strength, speed, or endurance to avoid the consequences.  These guys have only two options to escape the pain: quit or stop making mistakes.   The strong and athletic have three options: quit, stop making mistakes, or avoid the consequences with superior athletic ability.  Using athletic ability is instinctual and natural.  As a result, it becomes much harder to identify and eliminate mistakes.  For many people, natural talent is a tremendous disadvantage.

Failure is the most important ingredient of success.  All success is achieved through making mistakes, learning from them, adjusting your approach, and trying again.  If you do not attempt goals that challenge you and expose your weaknesses, then you will never learn; you will never grow; and you will never be successful.

I call this concept The Failure/Success Feedback Cycle.   How can we learn as fast and efficiently as possible?

  1. Isolate failure mechanisms: When you make a mistake, it’s vital to know precisely what action caused the failure.
  2. Receive feedback (failure or success) as quickly as possible: It is impossible to make intelligent adjustments without knowing the result of the previous attempt.
  3. Increase the Failure/Success Cycle frequency: Make an attempt, get feedback, understand the result, and try again as many times as possible within a given time frame.
  4. Manage the difficulty: It is impossible to learn from 100% success or 100% failure.  If you only succeed, nothing is driving improvement.  If you only fail, you cannot tell if your adjustments are helping or not.  The difficulty must be high enough that failure is frequent but low enough that improvement can be measured.

There are no secrets to success.  It is the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure.

– Colin Powell

Thoughts?  Post a comment or ask a question.  I will respond!

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