Learning From Failure

One of the key factors that has helped Silicon Valley become so successful is its culture around failure. In SV, failure is considered practice for success, rather than an excuse to give up. Indeed, in other places around the world, starting a business and failing would give many people a reason to never pursue entrepreneurship again. There are a few external factors that would influence this decision, which I shall cover further in this essay, but suffice to say that failure is not generally accepted in society. Failure is, to most people, a bad thing.

One of the main reasons I think failure has become so engrained in our culture as a bad thing is due to the way in which we teach people at school. Schools always optimize for success. Students get awards for getting high grades, and are made to feel amazing every time they win at something — an exam, a race, a test, or something else. Schools want students to succeed as much as possible, and so change their classes so that every student can feel successful in a meaningful way. Schools do not look kindly upon failure — and indeed, the consequences for failure are much greater than in most other parts of life.

If you fail an exam, then you may be held back a year, unable to progress in that subject area, or be subjected to something similar to help you get back on track. Being held back a year is one of the worst possible feelings for a student — they have to learn the same stuff all over again for a year, when only a few months may suffice — and so most students work as hard as possible to not be in that position. Schools tell people that in order to be successful, you need to get good test results, then go to a good college, then go on to pursuing a fruitful career in that field. It makes sense that schools teach people that success is a good thing — failing feels pretty bad — but it is also dangerous that they value attaining success in every situation over handling and learning from failure.

There are a few impacts of this aversion to teaching failure in schools on people. Firstly, because schools optimize for success, children generally feel like they are behind everyone else when they fail. If a child feels like they are behind everyone else in the school, then it will have a significant mental impact on them — they have been taught that failure is a bad thing. Also, because schools optimize for success, then when students fail, everyone else in the class sees the individual differently. If someone is unable to meet the standards that other people in their class have attained, they risk social exclusion, or otherwise being seen differently by others. If we teach people that failure is a bad thing from a young age, they will constantly hold this opinion of the world.

And so the effect continues. People remember the feeling of failing an important test when they were in high school, and that gives them a reason not to pursue ambitious ideas in the future. Schools are based on conformity, and so ambition is not nurtured — students are taught that conformity is a quicker path to success than acting on your ambition. Conformity is outside of the purview of this essay, but it is important to note that learning failure is a bad thing makes us less likely to take risks. Further, because schools don’t teach students about risk management — especially in terms of career and opportunity risk — then often times we lack the information we need to put failure into context. There are some risks where, if we take them, we risk losing only what we have invested, but stand to gain an outsized return for our efforts if we succeed. Starting a startup is a great example of this. If students become scared of failure, it is going to be very difficult for them to comprehend these types of risks as they mature, and they will be less likely to pursue more ambitious ideas that would allow them to gain a lot, but also would risk them losing a little — something we have been taught is a bad thing.

Setbacks and failure in life are an opportunity to become a better person. Another problem with not teaching people about failure in schools is that when life does strike us with a terrible blow, we will be unable to handle it optimally. The truth is that life sometimes doesn’t go our way — we fail, we lose, we miss out on an opportunity. Schools teach that failure is a bad thing, and so when many people suffer a setback, they use it as an excuse to change course. This is the wrong way of thinking. Instead, schools should teach that every problem in life is an opportunity to grow — to become a better person. Indeed, we can learn more from our mistakes and setbacks than we can from being successful all of the time — we know what not to do in the future. If we spend all of our time wallowing in self-pity, then doing something different just because we failed once, then we will never be able to stick around long enough to realize the fruits of our labor.

Upon further reflection, schools are not the only people who are guilty of imposing this view of failure onto society: parents perpetuate this view as well. Parents want their children to succeed — this is a natural feeling — and so they always push their children into playing games where they can win. This often means that they end up playing the wrong games, because they focus on choosing the path where they can lose the least, rather than the path that allows them to become a better person. Indeed, playing a different game is an effective way of living a purposeful life, but the different game you play should be based on passion, not on evading failure. Most of the time, the game we choose is the one where we will fail the least, but this is different than someone else telling us to pursue a different path because they think that it will be better for us. Parents want to shield their children from failure as much as possible because failure feels bad; parents don’t want their children to feel bad. And so parents teach children to pursue safe paths — those where the prospects of living a meaningful life are significantly lessened because our innate sense of ambition and curiosity is not nurtured.

Another source of our current view that failure is wrong may also be from the way we teach and understand history — both inside and outside the context of the classroom. If we reflect on how we have learned about history, we often learn more about the successes of great people than all of the failures that came before their success. Have you ever heard of Traf-O-Data? Traf-O-Data was a partnership between Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Paul Gilbert that aimed to read raw data from roadway traffic counters and create reports for traffic engineers. If Gates had given up after this venture ultimately failed, we would not have Microsoft, the pioneer of many different technological innovations that have changed the world. Often times, biographies don’t teach enough about the failures of successful people. I feel like this is a massive opportunity that has been missed. If we were more aware of the numerous failures of successful people before they became successful — especially in terms of the content we read, such as biographies — then we would most likely be more accepting of failure.

I believe that we all have a right to be wrong. Being taught from a young age that failure is a bad thing is the quickest way to stop someone from being ambitious. Schools don’t like ambition for the most part, because ambitious students can expose the cracks in their system; after all, schools are based on teaching people in cohorts over offering individualized paths, a structure that was chosen because it is easier to manage. If society teaches young people that failure is a bad thing, then many people who have the potential to make a difference will be unable to realize their full potential, because they are scared of failing.

Silicon Valley has generated so much economic value because when someone fails, everyone else recognizes that failure is a step on the journey to success, and they are supported. People in SV don’t see failure as a bad thing, they see it as an opportunity for growth. This is contrary to the traditional view of failure, where if you fail, people see it as an excuse to quit and do something that is easier and has lessened odds of failing. This SV culture of accepting failure has resulted in passionate people continuing to work on what they enjoy doing, even if they have failed in the past. This has resulted in more people becoming successful, because they know that failure is not the end — it is just a step on the road to success.

What we have realized, historically speaking, is that most people in SV have not reached a strong level of success on their first try. Most people who have started successful companies would have likely explored dozens of ideas — perhaps just at the idea stage — before actually committing to a single path. Indeed, many people who have started successful companies have also started companies that have failed in the past. SV is so successful because if a founder fails, other people are willing to offer them support and help them realize that they now have a unique opportunity for personal growth. If SV founders were to quit after failing once, SV would not be the startup hub of the world. To use an example outside of SV,

If we let other people tell us what we should and should not be doing, then we are never going to learn about being wrong. Failure feels bad; it is natural. But rather than seeing it as a reason to give up, we should instead see it as an opportunity for personal growth. Schools, parents, and society often — wrongfully, might I add — says that when you fail, you should immediately stop doing what you are doing, and change courses. Society believes that moving on is the best way to get back on track. However, I think that interpretation of failure — the one taught in schools — leads us to lose out on a lot of the value that failure provides. When we fail, we are able to reflect on what we have done wrong, which gives us a set of lessons about what not to do in the future. Indeed, the most effective lessons we are taught in life are not shared by teachers, but rather by our minds when reflecting on our past failures.

How can I become an excellent writer? Write every day, even if your articles are really bad. How can I become a successful startup founder? Keep working hard every day, and even if you fail, you should keep trying. This heuristic applies to every aspect of life. Failure is a path to success, but only if we spend time learning from our mistakes, and reflecting on how we can mitigate the risk of making those same risks over again. The commonality between most successful people is that they have never given up when they have failed; failure was a temporary setback, not a permanent condemnation of their ambition.

Failure is good. Successful people become successful by continuously trying; not all of their past work was great.