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People begin to get better when they fail.
May 25, 2011 5:49 AM   Subscribe

Milton Glaser on fear of failure "This is the way to professional accomplishment: You have to demonstrate that you know something unique that you can repeat over and over and over, until ultimately you lose interest in it. The consequence of specialization and success is that it hurts you. It hurts you because it doesn't aid in your development. The truth of the matter is that understanding development comes from failure."

From Bergh's Exhibition '11.

Michael Wolff on the fear of failure
Hannah Jones on the fear of failure
Amy C. Edmondson on the fear of failure
Mary Lee Sjönell on the fear of failure
Sarah Moon on the fear of failure
Wally Olins on the fear of failure
Stefan Sagmeister on the fear of failure
Rei Inamoto on the fear of failure
Peter Bregman on the fear of failure
Paolo Coelho on the fear of failure
Luke Sullivan on the fear of failure
posted by heatherann (30 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts." --Winston Churchill
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 5:52 AM on May 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


Often, when one fails is when they learn the most.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:56 AM on May 25, 2011


Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

- Samuel Beckett
posted by klue at 6:03 AM on May 25, 2011


Should we not be concerned as to whether this fear of error is not just the error itself? Indeed, this fear takes something -- a great deal in fact -- for granted as truth, supporting its scruples and inferences on what is itself in need of prior scrutiny to see if it is true. To be specific, it takes for granted certain ideas about cognition as an instrument and as a medium, and assumes that there is a difference between ourselves and this cognition. Above all, it presupposes that the Absolute stands on one side and cognition on the other, independent and separated from it, and yet is something real; or in other words, it presupposes that cognition which, since it is excluded from the Absolute, is surely outside of the truth as well, is nevertheless true, an assumption whereby what calls itself fear of error reveals itself rather as fear of truth.
-- G.W.F. Hegel
posted by AlsoMike at 6:03 AM on May 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


Mommy will get mad if we fail.
posted by orthogonality at 6:05 AM on May 25, 2011


Unfortunately, the current "give 110%" climate in most businesses actively and severely punishes any sort of failure or even a simple mistake. So, most people won't even court the idea of going close enough to the edge, in case they may fall off.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:06 AM on May 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


"Failure" is another word for "attempt."

- Me, a few years ago
posted by Eideteker at 6:12 AM on May 25, 2011


Mommy will get mad if we fail.

It's ok, we can appeal to daddy and play them off each other.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:13 AM on May 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


One of the best things you can do in life is fail informatively.
posted by mhoye at 6:14 AM on May 25, 2011


I thought I had my kids thoroughly trained to respect failure as a healthy and integral part of the process of learning - then I sent them to school... From the youngest age American society is geared toward motivating children by making them fear failure. It's so frustratingly counterintuitive.
posted by any major dude at 6:28 AM on May 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


This is going to be a little bit unfair on poor Mr Glaser, but I am so god damn sick to death of people who have succeed telling me about the virtue of failure. Of course learning from your mistakes is good and of course fearing to make mistakes and so only ever doing what you know is a bad thing.

But this crap of failing enough means you'll succeed is patronising and needs to stop. Do you know what happens to people how fail too often? They lose their homes, have employment gaps, their skills get rusty and they become harder and harder to employ and so live decently. Sure failing some times is healthy but these kind of comments always down play the huge cost of failure, how failure is not just a psychological phenomenon that will only hurt you if you let it, but also an objective fact that will define your subsequent options. Every day people fail to control their temper or fail to choose the right words or fail to stop themselves from driving while drunk and simply turning those failures into soundbits is potentially dangerous.

Failure is part of a learning process but to assimilate it solely to that process is naïve at best, wilfully destructive at worst.

Having no fear of failure is fine, when you know you have a safety net. A lot of people don't have that.
posted by litleozy at 6:39 AM on May 25, 2011 [17 favorites]


Every day people fail to control their temper or fail to choose the right words or fail to stop themselves from driving while drunk and simply turning those failures into soundbits is potentially dangerous.

what are you talking about? The point these people are making is that you need to LEARN from your failures not just fail. Yeah, you can take it literally but that would be totally missing the obviously exaggerated point. The people who have problems with their temper and problems with drunk driving are the ones who don't learn from these mistakes and just accept their failures as a psychological defect - as opposed to something they can incrementally correct.
posted by any major dude at 7:08 AM on May 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


Every day people fail to control their temper or fail to choose the right words or fail to stop themselves from driving while drunk and simply turning those failures into soundbits is potentially dangerous.

Or fail to understand that being deliberately obtuse about "Fail" as a concept and "fail" as a verb is disingenuous.

Fail. Try again.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:09 AM on May 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


"Trying is the first step towards failure." -- H. Simpson

(I get tired of pithy aphorisms)
posted by Ritchie at 7:11 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Every day people fail to control their temper or fail to choose the right words or fail to stop themselves from driving while drunk and simply turning those failures into soundbits is potentially dangerous.

You are chosing ridiculous examples, and more importantly you seem to be only seeing the "failure" part of this equation, and forgetting the more important parts: deciding to do something with purpose, despite the fear of failure, and deciding to do something again after you fail at that thing. To restate: the failure being discussed in this post has to do with—the first critical part—mindfully attempting something, failing, and—the second critical part—picking yourself up off the ground after (if) you do fail, and trying it again.

Having no fear of failure is fine, when you know you have a safety net. A lot of people don't have that.

And, you also seem to be suggesting people with a safety net are not afraid of failure. But this is all relative. And frankly, success can be as small as getting up every morning, filing your forms for your food stamps, making it to work that day, etc. Sure, there are plenty of people for whom even these things are trying—and therefore they are faced with the same exact question regarding success and failure. In fact, at every level of human existence there are day-to-day and life challenges that present exactly the same question: "Do I try? What if I fail?" That is what this is about.

But this crap of failing enough means you'll succeed is patronising and needs to stop.

What is actually patronizing is assuming success—and a proper approach to failure—is only for the privileged, those with a safety net.
posted by dubitable at 7:29 AM on May 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


A winner never quits and a quitter never wins. But someone who never wins and never quits is an idiot.
posted by SPrintF at 8:03 AM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Failure to succeed is the main cause of aphorisms.
posted by rainy at 8:31 AM on May 25, 2011


Valorizing failure can also airbrush away the reality that constant failure is exhausting, and may be ultimately just as bad for you as playing it safe. From my experience, this is one of the biggest intrinsic factors that burns people out in science: you fail constantly, even on things that you feel certain about. When you combine this with external factors, like the fact that failed experiments don't get you publications, the effects can be really difficult to deal with.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:42 AM on May 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


Whenever I am down about this sort of thing, I think of Grant. Mediocre at West Point (except for riding), and decorated in the Mexican War, he resigned his commission while feeling isolated from his family while serving on the west coast. His farm failed and he faced the indignity of being met by a well-dressed former compatriot while selling firewood on the streets. Finally he ended up working under his younger brother at his father's tannery shop. A failure by every American measure.

Then the Civil War broke out. Within 8 years he had fought five titanic, victorious campaigns, crushed Robert E. Lee when all others had failed, and become President of the United States.

F. Scott Fitzgerald had it all wrong.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:53 AM on May 25, 2011 [8 favorites]


litleozy: Not having seen any of the videos, I am gonna guess the real moral of the story is that fear of failure should not be the _one_ thing holding you back, but hey, concrete possibility of starvation/etc is probably a good reason not to do something.

In that sense, I think people should always have a backup plan of some sort.
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 8:56 AM on May 25, 2011


Failure in meditation is the most interesting case of failure because there's no expectation of any results to begin with.
posted by rainy at 9:14 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Everyone fails sometimes - whether you embrace failure or not. The ability to take those periodic failures and use them as an opportunity to honestly assess your choices and to make meaningful and lasting changes in your behavior is extremely beneficial and has the potential to be enormously transformative.

But I agree with those pointing out that repeated failures are potentially paralyzing. I'm still hobbled by a couple large scale failures in my own life that happened several years ago. I've never fully recovered my confidence since then. It feels to me that I cary this feeling of failure on a subconscious level in ways that detrimentally impact every area of my life! I have heard similar feelings from people.

And this "embrace failure" thing ignores that some people are born into situations where failure will be a near constant experience. Embracing and recovering from failure is much more difficult when you are deluged by constant negative experiences where you have little power. My boyfriend is beating me up, or the power company just turned off my lights, or my mom is addicted to drugs, or I can't concentrate at school because of my homelife or the shitty school environment so I'm failing in school, or all of these transposed on top of each other are a set of feelings/experiences that for some people, are constant, and the feeling of failure they bring do not provide any sense of empowerment and instead create a negative spiral in terms of motivation and self confidence.

Also, am I really out of it? I've never heard of a single one of these failure experts. Except Coelho who I've never read. Even in reading I am a failure!
posted by serazin at 9:24 AM on May 25, 2011 [3 favorites]



I learned all I need to know about failure from World of Warcraft.

"_______ was merely a setback!" is what I say now whenever something doesn't go quite right.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:00 AM on May 25, 2011


This is the wisest thing I've ever read online, and it mirrors my life experience:

I no longer equate thinking I'm right about something with actually being right about it.

It's now very easy for me to entertain the thought that I may be wrong even when I feel pretty strongly that I'm right. Even if I've been quite forceful about something I believe, I'm able to back down very quickly in the face of contradicting evidence. I have no embarrassment about admitting that I was wrong about something.

That all came from decades of working in a discipline that mercilessly proves you to be mistaken a dozen times a day, but that also requires you to believe you're right if you're going to make any progress at all.

-- http://stackoverflow.com/questions/168805/what-real-life-good-habits-has-programming-given-you/169172#169172
posted by grumblebee at 11:00 AM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Quitters never finish.
posted by Floydd at 11:16 AM on May 25, 2011


That all came from decades of working in a discipline that mercilessly proves you to be mistaken a dozen times a day

Are you sure it's this? I'm familiar with no small number of programmers who apparently have never arrived at the point you describe despite doing the same kind of work. I'd be surprised if you weren't also familiar with some of them too.

I do think programming has a lot to teach the willing student about their own limitations, possibly more than some other kinds of work, but I think you have to come to the table with a certain tendency towards introspection and responsibility in order to get there.
posted by weston at 2:05 PM on May 25, 2011


weston, I agree. Programming by itself isn't sufficient. It's one of a few things that must be present in order for someone embrace failure. But if someone is constituted to embrace it, he won't get a chance to embrace it if he's not working in a discipline that highlights failure.

If your program doesn't compile, it doesn't compile. You can be SURE it's "right." You can feel to your core that it SHOULD work. But if it doesn't, it doesn't.

(I sometimes have trouble communicating this to employers. "Is your program ready to go live?" my boss asks.

I say, "Well, it hasn't been thoroughly tested yet. It really needs to be completely QAed before we can say, for sure, that it works."

He says, "Well, we don't have time to do that, so just give me your gut impression of whether it's in good shape or not."

I'm in a bind, because I don't think my "gut" or anyone's "gut" is trustworthy in situations like this. Of course I THINK it's going to work. I programmed it and I made -- what seemed to me to be -- correct decisions. But I am continually aware of how often I've been fooled by "gut" feelings. So if I'm honest with my boss, I have to say, "My gut says it is ready to go live, but we'd be fools to trust my gut.")

---

I've had a fascinating experience hanging out on quora.com, recently. Quora is similar to Ask Metafilter. But it has a feature AskMe lacks: anyone can suggest an edit to your post, and you can accept or reject those edits.

I have a few posts there that have become very popular, read by hundreds of people. There's one post in particular that I get an email about nearly every day. "So and so suggested an edit for your post." It's usually really tiny stuff. Today someone discovered that I'd written "staying" when I meant to write "saying."

What's interesting is that I carefully proofread all my posts. I say each word out loud to myself after writing it. This is a very ingrained habit with me, and I strive for perfection. AND I GENERALLY THINK I ACHIEVE IT.

In most of the forums where I post, there isn't an edit-by-community feature, so I am free to believe that I am finding most or all of my errors. Quora has prove me wrong. Not only am I missing some of them -- I am missing a LOT of them. New edits trickle in every day, and each time I get that HOW COULD I POSSIBLY HAVE MISSED THAT feeling?

But I am learning a simple fact: I suck at proofreading and need help. To be fair to me, most of us suck at proofing our own writing, which is why writers need editors. But I falsely thought I was much better than I was, and I am grateful for Quora for yanking my blinkers off.

It makes me realize that there must be many other areas of my life in which there are no checks on my behavior and output. (For instance, if you'd asked me before Quora, I would have claimed that my writing on Metafilter was relatively free of typos: I now am almost positive that's not the case.)

I wish the world made it easier to get this kind of feedback. I think a lot of people genuinely think -- with good reason -- that they don't fail very often. Because, in general, the world is not set up to hold a mirror up to failure. It's pretty failure tolerant.

But at least with programming, there's no way to deny this. If it doesn't compile, you failed, and at least on some level, even if you don't admit it to others, you must know you've failed.

Actually, I guess programmers working in big teams can blame someone else: "my code didn't compile because you write your API in a dumb way!" So maybe my advantage is that I work mostly on my own. There really is no one else to blame.
posted by grumblebee at 3:40 PM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]



Then the Civil War broke out. Within 8 years he had fought five titanic, victorious campaigns, crushed Robert E. Lee when all others had failed, and become President of the United States.

Grant then presided over what has turned out to be one of the most corrupt administrations in US history, and left office more or less in disgrace.

Then he went on a world tour that was quite successful, except that it cost him a lot of money. Anxious to restore his fortune, he invested his money with a broker highly recommended by his son, and that broker stole all his money as well as the money of friends who had followed his example.

Now nearly destitute, he was forced to sell his Civil War mementos to pay debt, and around this time was also diagnosed with the throat cancer which would kill him.

He spent his last days-- in great pain-- as what I've heard described as a sort of living historical diorama tourist attraction, writing his memoirs on the front porch of a house in Saratoga county NY.

In a final irony considering the circumstances of their production, those memoirs have been almost universally hailed as one of the great productions of American letters, and (because of a generous contractual arrangement with Mark Twain) earned Grant's family more than $450,000 after his death.
posted by jamjam at 4:52 PM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I frequently have the opposite problem, where I get so comfortable with failure that it no longer means anything to me. I suppose this is just a stylistically different way of protecting myself from the pain that I need to grow.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:17 PM on May 25, 2011


I know I fear failure, but I'd wager that that particular fear isn't holding me back as much as some fears I have of the associates of failure:

Namely: Hunger, Homelessness, Injury, and Illness.

If I didn't have to fear the latter four, Failure and I would be best buddies. Seems life in the USA doesn't work that way, however.

(Incidentally, death doesn't bother me so much. I view it just like birth: Everyone does it. I made it through birth, so I feel death should be a snap as well.)
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 11:54 PM on May 25, 2011


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