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The Success of Failure

The Success of Failure

When and How to Fail in 4 Easy Steps


Some people seem to do almost nothing wrong. These are the fair-haired children whose mistakes are seen as great learning experiences and blunders are written off as humorous folly.  Bill Gates was infamous for the “little green men” in demos that crashed at Comdex or other venues. Steve Jobs created NeXT (I was a user of this great system), which flopped in the market but nonetheless sold to Apple for nearly half a billion dollars.  And now we have Elon Musk who recently promoted the misfires in consecutive attempts at launching an autonomous reusable rocket.

Musk was brazen in his willingness to share and even sarcastically narrate the events of these rocket attempts that, if manned, would have killed dozens of astronauts. Of course they were not. These were only tests but they represented the dangers of space flight.  Were it almost anyone else, I would expect footage of such disasters to put the fear of heaven and earth into rational people who can now see, first hand, the risk of being pioneers into the consumer space age.  But I suspect, not Elon Musk. For him, a golden child, the press will laugh along, and the nation will stand proudly behind the man who has already proven that he goes where no one else dares. And I hate to admit it, but I’ll probably be right there with them. For so many of us, our tech leaders are heroes.  They have earned the right of passage, they have chartered a course for society and their mistakes are quickly forgotten and forgiven.

Why do some people make mistakes and even cherish them? A few years back, Beth Cooper wrote a blog post “The Science of Failure: Why Highly Successful People Crave Mistakes.” Cooper is the first Content Crafter at Buffer and co-founder of Exist and writes about social media, startups, lifehacking and science. She interviewed several successful people to ask them about making mistakes. For most of us, making mistakes is embarrassing, something we’d like to lock in a closet. In her post, Cooper interviewed Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong, who explains: “As with dying, we recognize erring as something that happens to everyone, without feeling that it is either plausible or desirable that it will happen to us… Because we don’t experience, remember, track, or retain mistakes as a feature of our inner landscape, wrongness always seems to come at us from left field.”

Some however, see life in its mirror image. For them, mistakes are a bellwether of success. Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert fantastically commented that “If I find a cow turd on my front steps, I’m not satisfied knowing that I’ll be mentally prepared to find some future cow turd. I want to shovel that turd onto my garden and hope the cow returns every week so I never have to buy fertilizer again. Failure is a resource that can be managed.”

Risk-embracing personality types breed success and success breeds a desire for more risk.  Back in 2010, Heidi Grant, Ph.D. contributed an article in Psychology Today which analyzed behaviors of successful and risk-taking celebs and politicians. There she included a summary on a series of studies by Cameron Anderson and Adam Galinsky that showed that when male and female participants felt powerful, they preferred riskier business plans (with bigger potential rewards) over more conservative plans, divulged more information and were more trusting during negotiations, chose to “hit” more often during a game of black-jack, and were more likely to engage in unprotected sex during a one-night stand.  This was true whether the participants had a generally higher sense of power, or were momentarily made to feel powerful in the experiment.

All this being said, one might be led to believe that risks and mistakes are tantalizing and exciting. Should we all embrace risk, produce videos of our blunders and proudly promote them as stepping stones in our career? Not so fast. There are some criteria that should be considered before running over hot coals or diving into shallow water.

First, determine if you’ve tacitly earned permission to share mistakes. Do you have the experience or the recognition of a person who is proven in a field, or has published or educated with pedigree? You’ll need to back up your self-deprecating exposure with the reputation that you’re bigger than your mistakes. You don’t have to be Elon Musk, but at least should have achieved some measure of success. If Elon Musk were just a young frat boy, somehow with the cash to blow-up space ships, our impression might be different about jumping on one of his rockets and taking a space joy-ride.

Second, recognize your level of previous success in the same area that you plan to popularize for your mistakes. Even Elon Musk didn’t release his video until after he had successfully tested a launch and landing.  And your success should be equal to your mistake. In other words, if you’ve succeeded at building paper airplanes, you can err in the design of one without losing your reputation for being a great paper airplane designer.  Otherwise, you’re just goofy, or worse.

Third, judge your capacity for tasteful sarcasm and humor or for intellectual pursuit. Branding yourself by your gaffes without a style cue could lead others to consider you unstable or strange. These days you might even earn the title of bipolar.  There is either a certain amount of ‘aw shucks, that was cute’ about public mistakes or a very serious analysis of why the mistakes occurred and how you’ve corrected them.

Fourth, know when to be bold about sharing your mistakes with friends, colleagues or the masses.  There wouldn’t be anything funny about rockets blowing up with no launch success that would relieve our fear of taking a step into his spacecraft. That’s already been established. But what if Musk had timed the release of his video to a similar but yet unsuccessful trial by another company or to a significant drop in stock in one of his companies or a day of remembrance of fallen astronauts.  I have no idea why he would do that but the point is that timing is everything.

So let’s all take a few calculated risks, be carefully proud of the mistakes, share our achievements and try to make this world a better place to live.


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