Should You Try to Learn from Failure…Or Just Forget It?

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” — Traditional saying.

“The better a man is, the more mistakes he will make, for the more new things he will try. I would never promote to a top-level job a man who was not making mistakes… otherwise he is sure to be mediocre.” — Peter Drucker, Austrian management consultant and social ecologist.

“Remember, you only have to succeed the last time.” — Brian Tracy, Canadian self-help guru.

In the modern business world, failure is often made out to be something glorious, a virtue that almost inevitably leads to success in the long run. Oft-cited examples include Edison’s 1,000+ unsuccessful attempts to invent the light bulb before hitting on the right solution, and Bill Gates’ unsuccessful first computer business. We’re told, again and again, to fail forward, to fail as fast as possible, to dare to fail, because it makes us smarter and better in the long run.

So it was rather disconcerting—and oddly refreshing—to run across a recent working paper from Harvard Business School that takes the opposite tack: “Performance Persistence in Entrepreneurship,” by Paul Gompers, Anna Kovner, Josh Lerner, and David Sharfstein. The authors scrutinized a large sample of venture capital-backed IPOs, and discovered that brand new entrepreneurs succeeded about as often as those who’d tried before and failed (18% vs. 20%, respectively). The most successful entrepreneurs were those who had already succeeded: serial entrepreneurs, as they called them. But even serial entrepreneurs succeeded only about 30% of the time.

At the risk of oversimplification, Gompers et al. basically pointed out that statistically, failure does not necessarily result in eventual success—a rather common-sense “no duh” conclusion, frankly. Furthermore, the authors admitted that they looked at a relatively narrow business segment, and that they failed to control for a number of factors which might skew the results. So normally, I’d take something like this with a grain of salt.

However, the HBS working paper is noteworthy for the fact that it actually tests the assumption that failure is positive in the long run. Commentators who have written about the paper are quick to point out that there’s no real scholarly work that proves that failure is good for the entrepreneurial soul; we just assume that it is. On the other hand, now there’s research that suggests that failure isn’t necessarily helpful in the long run.

Still, I’m not convinced that this means a whole lot. While I do believe that you should focus on things that you’re good at, I also believe that failure can be helpful in defining the things that you’re bad at, and that you should never do again—so that you don’t waste time on such things. In general, then, I would argue that the concept that failure can help you in the long run is in fact a truism, something which doesn’t really require scholarly proof.

Now, a true scientist would howl at the very idea that anecdotal evidence could ever prove a point, but let’s be honest here: the anecdotal evidence that failure can contribute to success further down the road is simply overwhelming. Notice the qualifier in there: failure can help you succeed. It won’t do so automatically. Failure does not anoint you with the oil of future success. I feel that some of my colleagues have gone a little too far in suggesting that it does…or in outright saying so.

There’s nothing special about failure itself; it’s what you do with failure that matters. The real message here is that you’ve got to be willing to risk failure. Don’t be afraid of it. It’s just another opportunity to learn, and in most cases, it’s not permanent. Learning a lesson from what you’ve done wrong allows you to rise phoenix-like from the ashes, to take another grab at the brass ring. Maybe you’ll get it this time; maybe you won’t. But if not, don’t take the failure itself too personally, because that kills your confidence and destroys your chances to learn. You must make every effort to take something instructive away from your failure, or you’ve just wasted your time.

So to answer the question posed by this blog’s title—of course you should learn from failure! The working paper by Gompers et al. is interesting, but while their sample was substantial, the scope of the study was limited—and I don’t think the results apply to most real world situations. The truth is, as long as you can survive a failure, there’s almost always some tidbit to be pulled from the wreckage and taken to heart. There even may be a few intact bricks—e.g., successful aspects or ideas within the broader failure—that can be used to build a new edifice. At the very least, failure can teach you some emotional lesson that you can move forward with, once you’ve put the failure itself behind you.

I’m not going to tell you that there’s no such thing as a failure; of course there is. But you shouldn’t ignore failure, refusing to learn anything, and hope to luck into success. Failure to learn from failure will inevitably lead to more failure, in a vicious downward spiral. Refuse to allow that to happen to you!

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