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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Failure Equals Success

The other night, the husband and I watched an episode of “Silicon Valley,” which I highly recommend. It’s hilarious. Which is not my point, although it is A point. In this episode, the very weird genius chief executive of a hugely successful Google/Apple type company launches a product that just totally fails. It’s a bomb. Nothing works. So this genius chief exec has to appease his board of directors. He does so by claiming that because most successful inventions start out as unsuccessful failed prototypes, this spectacular failure is not really a bad thing. It’s actually a jumping off point for a future success. In fact, he says, it’s not even a failure at all. And if it’s not a failure, and if it is the precursor to success, well then, it is as good as success. Ergo FAILURE = SUCCESS. 

The husband turned to me and said, "You really have to blog about this." 

To myself I thought, But this is just a big blowhard twisting things around to try to wriggle out of a bad situation by creating some clumsy double-speak. On the other hand, is there some truth to what he says? 

The truth is that that there is more than one truth. 

First of all, how you look at a fact and how you interpret it is indeed colored by your attitude. You can get discouraged if something doesn’t work the first time, and make a little hatch mark on your scoreboard under “I Told You So - Things Never Turn Out for Me.” Or you can say to yourself, I expected things would take time. If at first you don’t succeed, etc, etc. This works if you feel that eventually, you will accomplish your goal. And you will have that confidence if by some miracle you survived your childhood and grew up feeling valued and supported, encouraged and not condemned for mistakes. 

I don’t know that many people like that. But there is always therapy. And affirmations, meditation, positive thinking, friends who believe in you when you don’t believe in yourself - and medication. 

Point: that this attitude can be difficult to develop, but not impossible. But I digress, Readers. 

Second of all, it is true that there are always missteps en route to a goal. Once again, how you react to these missteps determines so much. This reminds me of a recent email from the principal of our middle school about a book he’s reading called The Talent Code. This book talks about “deep practice”. Deep practice means learning from your mistakes and practicing to overcome them. Rather than practice something in a half-assed manner over and over, ignoring your mistakes, and thereby thoroughly ingraining those mistakes in your brain, you do it full-assed, stopping and taking those mistakes apart. That way you never learn it wrong.

I read about something related to deep practice in Bounce, by Daniel Seyd, which debunked the idea that talent is everything. Smart coaching and smart learning are key, according to Seyd. He points out that top athletes are exceptional because they have great coaches who help them break down every aspect of their game to tweak it; then, they practice these tweaks until they become automatic. The more parts of your game you make habitual or automatic, the more brain you have left to adjust to the unexpected - and win.  Smart studying, smart coaching, smart analysis: you look at what isn’t working and you figure out how to fix it, rather than practicing the same mistakes over and over again. 

Third of all, think about professional musicians, writers, athletes. They constantly practice their crafts. Every time a musician tackles a new piece, she has to learn it. She will stumble and make mistakes. Eventually she will prevail. Same with a writer. Crapola first draft, second draft, twelfth draft. Eventually, he creates a final draft. Viewed one way, these people are failing over and over again, right up until they succeed. But we don’t look at it like that. We call it practice or revision. Again, from Bounce: consider the figure skater. If you watch a figure skater practice, you will see a person literally falling on her ass over and over and over. That is because once she masters one move, she’s on to the next, harder one. So her success is truly built on multiple failures. 

I recently listened to a talk by Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal entitled, “Benefits of Failure.” Viewed in one way, meditation is practicing failure over and over. That is, the instructions to meditate are very simple: sit still, and notice your breath. Well, if you’ve ever tried to do that, you discover how very easily your mind wanders off and forgets to notice your breath. Failure. So you simply learn to notice when your mind wanders, and return your attention to your breath. When your mind again wanders off, you refocus it on your breath. Failure after failure. 

But, says Gil Fronsdal, maybe we should not look at this as failure. Maybe we should just look at it as practice. Meditation is less about the breath than about practicing paying attention to the breath. The benefit of failure in this case is that we learn that meditation is always about this same effort of returning attention to the breath and failing to maintain it. Failing to maintain that attention is inevitable, so we might as well relax and accept that we will be at this for a long time. 

As Churchill said, “Success always demands a greater effort.”

As Churchill did NOT say, “Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” 

Happy Thanksgiving! May your oven work and your guests be hungry. 


  1. In professional field we taste both success as well as failure and therefore we used to take preventive steps to reduce the percentage of failure. Apart from steps we should also learn crucial tips from our own failure experience and also from expert views. Here in this article also we have found some good taste on how to get success and how to deal with failure.

  2. Hope, it's really nice to meet you via Twitter. This is quite the deepest blog I've read in a while. I like your not-Churchill quote a lot. I must practice achieving that :)

    1. Thanks (I think? Is deep good? - aw, yes, I think so.) I aim for deep but funny.

      I appreciate the comment - and thanks for taking the time to read. See you around Twitter.