Why Failure Works
In a packed summer of sport, there are plenty of chances for glory – and even more for defeat. After months of training and years of preparation, Team GB have begun the final push to pole vault, sail, swim, cycle and run their way to victory in London 2012. But as a sobbing Andy Murray and the hangdog England football team could tell them, it’s also a good idea to steel yourself for failure.
Since Nasa flight director Gene Kranz coined the phrase in response to the crisis aboard Apollo 13, “Failure is not an option” has become the mantra of the thrusting young upstart. Parroted by Apprentice candidates, announced by world leaders ahead of international summits and cheered by pushy parents, it plays to our deepest sense that we must always strive to succeed.
But the tide is turning. From brain science to business and education to economics, a new zeitgeist is taking hold – and its focus is failure. The trend has its roots among the quintessential modern success stories. JK Rowling told Harvard graduates of the “benefits of failure”; Richard Branson loves to talk of embracing it. Apple guru Steve Jobs said his biggest failure – being fired from the company that he started – freed him from the “heaviness of success”. The motto taking hold in Silicon Valley and Disney Pixar sums up the new wisdom: “fail faster”.
“In any institution that’s actually doing anything useful, for anyone who’s trying to solve a problem that’s worth solving – you’re going to get failures and so you might as well get used to it and learn to make them productive failures,” explains economist and Financial Times columnist Tim Harford. His new book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, has seen him referred to as “Britain’s Malcolm Gladwell” and is being read in the UK’s corridors of power – David Willetts, the minister for universities and science, and business secretary Vince Cable are among the politicians who’ve been checking out its message.
Having set out to write about how we solve the sort of complex problems that fill the modern world – stuff like climate change, the banking collapse and industrial safety – Harford discovered that the key is changing our attitude to failure.
Learning from the times you mess up sounds patronisingly simple, but it’s not. A bank of scientific evidence now shows that our brains have a built-in aversion to loss. The economic psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky exposed this hard-wired defect in the brain through a simple survey among their students.
They noted that when offered a gamble on the toss of a coin and told that losing would cost them $20, the player demanded an average of $40 for winning. In other words, the pain of failure was twice as powerful as the joy of success or, as Kahneman and Tversky put it, “In human decision-making, losses loom larger than gains.”
“We’re too afraid of little failures,” agrees Harford. “Some failures aren’t that bad – they’re maybe embarrassing for a moment and then you forget – but we’re still disproportionately afraid of those. You see it with poker players, you see it with players of Deal or No Deal – people make very bad decisions immediately after they’ve take a loss. They compound the loss.”
You can see this quirk of the brain, too, in the way we pick leaders. George Osborne was proud to say of his austerity plan, “There’s no plan B”. Tony Blair boasted, “I don’t have a reverse gear”. And Margaret Thatcher famously declared, “You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning”.
“Hang on a moment,” says Harford. “If I said I’m going to sell you a car and it doesn’t turn and it doesn’t reverse, you wouldn’t buy the car. But if it is a politician, we’re delighted. We don’t like leaders that say, ‘I want to fix our schools but I don’t know how so I’m going to run experiments’. I’d vote for that, but I don’t think many people would.”
We’re living in complicated times – think about how little you understand even of how your mobile phone or your car works, never mind the big problems like the world economy or the Iraq war – so despite our hankering for certainty, the best solutions we have are based on recognising when we’ve failed, discovering why that is and then doing things differently next time. Nature has been doing it for millennia; it’s only thanks to the trial and error of evolution that we made it out of the primordial ooze.
Harford argues that the reason capitalism has been so successful is that it mimics this process – companies that no longer fit the market’s environment tend to find themselves going the same way as the triceratops. Failure is central, then, to the way our economy works. More than that, Harford contends that ignoring this rule is why we are now in the mess we’re in. By being “too big to fail” the banks undermined the whole system.
“The problem is we have this financial system where failures become impossible,” says Harford. “That means they’ve completely held the rest of us to ransom. I want our banks to work much more like ordinary high-street shops, where they’re actually innovating and competing for our business. It didn’t bring down the economy when Woolworths went out of business. Banks should work more like every other capitalist market.”
Being an economist, Harford tends to take the big view, but when unemployment figures are soaring – a recent study suggested that eurozone unemployment could reach 22 million by 2016 – there is a personal cost to every company failure. Again, like nature, capitalism is red in tooth and claw.
So how should we cope with this on an individual level? Can the new doctrine offer any counsel for the individual living through economic turmoil? Rick Newman, American author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success, says that even getting fired can be a “springboard to success” if individuals develop their resilience. “Embrace the experiences, own the setback,” he says. “If you fail because you tried to do something hard, that’s not something you should be ashamed of.”
Newman is scathing about what he calls “the doctrine of hard work” – the belief that if you just keep your head down and toil away, you’ll eventually get there. “A lot of people think when things don’t go right, you just dig deeper and work harder and you hope that that will get you through. That doesn’t always work because you may simply not have the right plan,” he says. “You have to be able ask yourself, what am I doing wrong? And then don’t get down on yourself, just change what’s not working – try something new.”
The good news is that all the research suggests that, with effort, we can all get better at bouncing back. “We cannot really improve our intelligence. That is pretty much fixed. But you can improve your resilience by quite a lot,” says Newman. “It is a tough economy. Adaptability is one of the most important skills people can have right now.”
At Stanford University, psychology professor Carol Dweck has discovered surprising implications of this argument for schools and parents. She spent decades showing that one of the crucial ingredients of a successful education is the ability to learn from failure. Again, it’s advice that sounds so simple as to be redundant – but we often teach our children the exact opposite.
In her most famous study, conducted in 1998 with more than 400 10- and 11-year-olds in New York, Dweck proved that when children are praised for being smart, rather than for being hard-working, it has ruinous effects on their willingness to stretch themselves and their ability to cope with knockbacks. The researchers had given the kids only one line of feedback, but the difference between saying ‘You must be smart at this’ rather than ‘You must have worked really hard’ proved to be profound. The first comment saw their brain’s natural aversion to failure reinforced so that a mistake is a sign of stupidity, rather than an opportunity to learn.
So far the vogue for failure has been somewhat equivocal – it’s valuable only as the path to success – but what if we took it a step further? In his new “anti self-help book”, The Antidote, journalist and author Oliver Burkeman argues that if happiness is our aim – as opposed to world domination, say – then we should go for a much more radical acceptance of failure.
“I think that most of the talk about embracing failure is very superficial – those people really mean you have to tolerate a little bit of failure in order to continue with your plan to be a massive success and a multi-millionaire,” he says. “The bigger psychological, almost spiritual, point is that, actually, there can be a sort of joy in failure. It certainly has a greater appeal than spending your life in a desperate attempt to avoid it at all costs.”
Burkeman believes we’ve made a mistake in deciding that a continual struggle for success is the right way to live. Harnessing the ancient Greek philosophy of the Stoics and a few lessons from Buddhism, plus the up-to-date work of Professor Dweck, he argues what we really need is to look at failure a bit differently.
“Dweck’s idea is that we are each on a continuum in terms of the attitudes we have towards the nature of talent and skill. Some people basically think that talent is innate and other people have an incremental theory where they expect talent to emerge through hard work and challenge,” he says.
“If you are someone with a fixed theory, then planning a wedding, or doing a presentation at work or competing in a sporting event is either an opportunity to show your innate talent, that you can do it, or show that you haven’t got it. Whereas if you have an incremental theory, then the failure is actually evidence or feedback that you are pushing at the limits of your current abilities and thereby developing them.”
There’s evidence that just hearing about this distinction is enough for people to be able to reframe their view of failure, thus allowing them to expand their talents, but that’s not the best bit, says Burkeman. “It’s also just a more enjoyable way to live.”
The idea of being “a failure as a person” as opposed to someone who’s suffered a setback is relatively new. In his book Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, history professor Scott A Sandage argues that the concept started when credit reporting began in the 19th century. Ratings agencies started to put a value on people based on their business life, which bled into the public mindset until we were measuring our souls using business models.
As more people begin to question the power of credit ratings agencies in finance, perhaps we should also halt their influence on us as human beings. Even Team GB might do well to break free and embrace the fail. There’s no shame in pushing for greatness, even if you don’t quite get there.