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Image: From Harford's "Adapt" book trailer

Iteration

Why Success Always Starts With Failure

The ego is the enemy of innovation. Economist Tim Harford explains why a complex world demands that we accept our mistakes and adapt rapidly.


“Few of our own failures are fatal,” economist and Financial Times columnist Tim Harford writes in his new book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure. This may be true, but we certainly don’t act like it. When our mistakes stare us in the face, we often find it so upsetting that we miss out on the primary benefit of failing (yes, benefit): the chance to get over our egos and come back with a stronger, smarter approach.

According to Adapt, “success comes through rapidly fixing our mistakes rather than getting things right first time.” To prove his point, Harford cites compelling examples innovation by trial-and-error from visionaries as varied as choreographer Twyla Tharp and US Forces Commander David Petraeus. I interviewed Harford over email to dig deeper into the counter-intuitive lessons of Adapt. What follows is a series of key takeaways on the psychology of failure and adaptation, combining insights from our conversation and the book itself.

The Wrong Way To React To Failure

When it comes to failing, our egos are our own worst enemies. As soon as things start going wrong, our defense mechanisms kick in, tempting us to do what we can to save face. Yet, these very normal reactions — denial, chasing your losses, and hedonic editing — wreak havoc on our ability to adapt.

Denial.

“It seems to be the hardest thing in the world to admit we’ve made a mistake and try to put it right. It requires you to challenge a status quo of your own making.”

Chasing your losses.

We’re so anxious not to “draw a line under a decision we regret” that we end up causing still more damage while trying to erase it. For example, poker players who’ve just lost some money are primed to make riskier bets than they’d normally take, in a hasty attempt to win the lost money back and “erase” the mistake.

Hedonic editing.

When we engage in “hedonic editing,” we try to convince ourselves that the mistake doesn’t matter, bundling our losses with our gains or finding some way to reinterpret our failures as successes.

We’re so anxious not to “draw a line under a decision we regret” that we end up causing still more damage while trying to erase it.

The Recipe for Successful Adaptation

At the crux of Adapt lies this conviction: In a complex world, we must use an adaptive, experimental approach to succeed. Harford argues, “the more complex and elusive our problems are, the more effective trial and error becomes.” We can’t begin to predict whether our “great idea” will actually sink or swim once it’s out there.Harford outlines three principles for failing productively: You have to cast a wide net, “practice failing” in a safe space, and be primed to let go of your idea if you’ve missed the mark.

Try new things.

“Expose yourself to lots of different ideas and try lots of different approaches, on the grounds that failure is common.”

Experiment where failure is survivable.

“Look for experimental approaches where there’s lots to learn – projects with small downsides but bigger upsides. Too often we take on projects where the cost of failure is prohibitive, and just hope for the best.”

Recognize when you haven’t succeeded.

“The third principle is the easiest to state and the hardest to stick to: know when you’ve failed.”

The more complex and elusive our problems are, the more effective trial and error becomes.

How To Recognize Failure

This is the hard part. We’ve been trained that “persistence pays off,” so it feels wrong to cut our losses and label an idea a failure. But if you’re truly self-aware and listening closely after a “release” of your idea, you can’t go wrong. Being able to recognize a failure just means that you’ll be able to re-cast it into something more likely to succeed.

Gather feedback.

“Above all, feedback is essential for determining which experiments have succeeded and which have failed. Get advice, not just from one person, but from several.” Some professions have build-in feedback: reviews if you’re in the arts, sales and analytics if you release a web product, comments if you’re a blogger. If the feedback is harsh, be objective, “take the venom out,” and dig out the real advice.

Remove emotions from the equation.

“It’s important to be dispassionate: forget whether you’re ahead or behind, and try to look at the likely costs and benefits of continuing from when you are.”

Don’t get too attached to your plan.

“There’s nothing wrong with a plan, but remember Von Moltke’s famous dictum that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. The danger is a plan that seduces us into thinking failure is impossible and adaptation is unnecessary – a kind of ‘Titanic’ plan, unsinkable (until it hits the iceberg).”

Being able to recognize a failure just means that you’ll be able to re-cast it into something more likely to succeed.

Creating Safe Spaces to Fail

Twyla Tharp says, “The best failures are the private ones you commit in the confines of your own room, with no strangers watching.” She rises as 5:30 AM and videotapes herself freestyling for 3 hours each morning, happy if she extracts just 30 seconds of usable material from the whole tape. This is a great example of a “safe space to fail.” But many of us don’t have this luxury of time or freedom. So how do we create this space?

Practice disciplined pluralism.

Markets work by this process, encouraging the exploration of many new ideas as well as the ruthless weeding out of the ones that fall short. “Pluralism works because life is not worth living without new experiences.” Try a lot of things, and commit only to what’s working.

Finding “a safe space to fail is a state of mind.”

Assuming that you don’t operate a nuclear power plant for a living, you can probably infuse a bit more freedom and flexibility into your workday. Give yourself permission to test out a few off-the-wall ideas mixed in with the by-the-book ideas.

Imitate the college experience.

“College is an amazing safe space to fail. We are experimenting with new friends, a new city, new hobbies and new ideas – and we’ll often mess up academically and socially as a result. But we know that as long as we don’t screw up too dramatically, we’ll finish college, graduate, and move on – that mix of risk and safety is intoxicating. Yet somehow as we grow older we lose it.” —

What’s Your Take?

Do you think that trial and error is the most effective approach for innovation? What are your tips for surviving failure?

Comments (73)
  • http://familyfirst-online.blogspot.com/ Family First

    Failure is part of life. Agree with J.K. Rowling, “It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case, you fail by default.A failure should never bring you down, but should challenge you to be better.

  • ramesh pillai

    i guest, sticking to a single plan is worst ….we should have plan A,plan B,plan C stored in us ,so that be better prepared for failure

    • Gondwana

      I agree mr pillai ….

  • Jason Brown

    Can I use this article with full credit to a group that I teach. It has about 2,500 members. I am not an author, just a guy who was awed by the truth of this article.
    Jason Brown
    expectgrowth@gmail.com

    • Jason Brown

      Giving you full credit. Sorry I don’t speak the language as well as I should.

  • Luis P.

    Love the post. Another tool I use when my ego is trying to push me down one of the less productive paths is to find neutral. In other words, when Amazon did not offer me the job I was certain was mine, I just took a step back and considered that it might have been good or might have been bad. We never know what other opportunities lie ahead. That way I don’t commit to any ‘virtual reality’ in my mind and can move one faster.

  • Healthy Lifestyles

    My life went through its darkest time in 2008 when i felt like a complete failure facing up to the repossession of my beautiful home with its indoor pool and being forced into bankruptcy. 5 years later i have recovered and rebuilt my life and am now enjoying great success. My advice is to never give up, always believe in yourself and decide what it is you want and do everything to make it come about.

  • benursal

    One tip I can give on how to survive failure is to expect it before it happens. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not encouraging negative thinking. There’s a difference between “expecting failure to happen and not reaching for your dreams” and “expecting failures and becoming ready to face it head on so you can reach for your dreams”. What I’m talking about is the latter. There is a universal fact that failures goes before success. We can read about the lives of successful people. So there’s no use denying it. Instead, if we are aiming to do something worthwile, something we are passionate about, before we will even make the jump, we must “expect” and “accept” the reality that failures will come.

    This will give us a peace of mind since we already accepted that we are not excused from experiencing it. Worry only comes when we are uncertain about something. But if we know beforehand that failures will come, we are ready for it. So, the quote that’s most relevant to what I’m saying is, “Expect the worst, and hope for the best”.

    If you’re interested, I’ve written a blog post on this topic. http://techtrabaho.com/blog/want-to-succeed-expect-failures-first.

    Anyway, thank you for your post. It was very very helpful. Keep writing well.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/kevinlillard/ Kevin Lillard

    The absolute, uncomfortable truth is that some people are destined to fail and there is no way out.

  • Kristine Morris

    This article was so well said! What stands out to me is being able to recognize your failure. Something I’ve had a lot of practice in and can be absolutely thankful for!

    Failure does not exist only after your business is launched but can also be before you have even started! If you have changed a launch date because of bad budgeting, another marketing strategy that came to mind causing you to have to re cast everything, someone launched something similar, or you’ve had to park your idea; all those things feel like failure. Recognizing failure and allowing yourself time to develop and create a sound plan is also key to success.

    “If you see every failure as an opportunity to do things better, success is guaranteed”
    ~Kristine Morris~

  • Thulan

    well said

  • Felix Brown

    I believe that failing is not yet the end of the world, indeed it’s just a beginning of one’s success. Look it as your strength and not as your weakness. Use it as your guide and inspiration in order to do more.

  • http://successformul.blogspot.com/ nestor

    Success always starts in failure because by failing, we learn, rise up and
    move on at our
    best

  • Lalit Mohan Pattnaik

    EGO needs to be thrown out into Bay of Bengal so as to accept failure and start anew

  • MissB

    Failing to me is a learning experience and experiment; it makes you dig deeper, think harder, and forces you to be open minded. It allows you to experiment and get things wrong, eliminate the things you’ve tried that went wrong, then focus on new ideas that you can possibly get right.

  • nikole

    BY READING THIS SEEMS ALL THING THAT IS WRITTEN IS TRUE…BY DOING MISTAKES THEN ONLY U REALIZE N IMPROVE IT N GET SUCCESS!!!😀

  • Prashant Malviya

    Agree, well said, failure is really just a part of learning process. We have examples in history too. Check it, http://learnfromfailure.wordpress.com

  • Yahya Chouguer

    great article !

    i wan’t to share with you some great inspirational quotes that changed my life.. enjoy ~http://tinyurl.com/ks4vapg

  • Momchil Ninov

    Trying new things is the best, just like “trying new clothes” as Barbara Corcoran says in this interview http://bit.ly/1G6MwXp

  • Yahya Chouguer

    You need some motivation? Join us … Get inspired to pursuit your ‪#‎dreams‬ ! ‪#‎share‬ and make a ‪#‎change‬

    http://tinyurl.com/prkvzyc

  • mahmood

    It was great. I thank you for the information on this site for users thank.
    خرید ملک در ترکیهنمای کامپوزیت

  • Sathyanand S

    Dear Sarah,
    Thanks for the great review of the book ‘Adapt’.
    Current generation seems to be looking for instant success stories and are not ready to go through the necessary process of crossing the failure phase.
    Keep writing and sharing such great insights.
    – Sathyanand
    https://sathyanand.wordpress.com/2015/03/22/the-quickest-way-to-success-fail/

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