Failing Successfully
February 8, 2011 1:28 PM   Subscribe

How do I make a habit of failing successfully (or at least in ways interesting to myself and others)?

I think that I'm often slowed down or even paralyzed by project situations when failing or not doing well enough seems highly likely. This is partly a perfectionism streak and partly a self-confidence issue and also based on being burned before (past experiences) . (Also, I do not mean here the phenomena of being "kicked upstairs" or of succeeding for unethical reasons despite causing problems for other people (e.g. the project fails but you get promoted because you successfully shifted all the blame to others)...

How do I practice a mindset or get into the habit of treating at least some likely-to-fail project situations as opportunities for learning, secondary success (my main objective wasn't achieved but I gained in other positive and ethical ways), and becoming more interesting? I'm especially interested in thinking about this in terms of projects where the likelihood of failure is objectively high (or at least widely agreed upon by others around you) and isn't just a figment of a pessimistic imagination... and you pretty much have to deal with the situation and go forward with the project.

Thank you for any suggestions!
I know that this idea of learning to fail successfully (or something like it) has been discussed as being an important part of some innovation cultures (e.g. in Silicon Valley). I'm a PhD student by trade but am interested in whatever thoughts people have generally or specifically on this, re: professional or personal matters. Any book (or other media) recommendations would be appreciated too.
posted by Bwithh to Work & Money (15 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Like you, I can have a negative turn of mind, but let me just point this out to you.

If the project you're working on is doomed to failure, think about it as a kind of job interview. How you handle yourself in difficult situations, whether you come up with and implement creative solutions (even if the main project fails), and how well you build relationships with others working on the project are all important skills that will impress colleagues and potential future employers alike.

Good luck!
posted by LN at 1:39 PM on February 8, 2011

How do I practice a mindset or get into the habit of treating at least some likely-to-fail project situations as opportunities for learning, secondary success (my main objective wasn't achieved but I gained in other positive and ethical ways), and becoming more interesting?

One way to do this is to come up with a project where the main goal is to learn the skills necessary to finish the project. For me personally that could be something like coming up with a project to use a new programming language that I haven't used before. Even if the end result isn't anything usable, any effort I put into the project will give me valuable experience in the new language that I can use in future projects. Also doing this a lot will help you become better at learning new skills, which will help in any kind of project.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:47 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

One of the best ways to do this is to plan for success before you start a project and then do a post mortem after the project.

1. Before you start any project, it's important to define what "success" is. The fun, kind of tricky part of this definition process is that you can define personal measures of success as well--especially for those projects you think are likely to fail. So for example, one marker of success can and should be the skills and knowledge you take away from the project--whether those are technical in nature or political/people skills or project management lessons.

2. When you're done with a project it's always a good idea to evaluate how the project went, focusing on whether or not you met your markers for success. If you didn't, this is the opportunity to figure out how to improve your process so you have a better chance to meet those markers next time. For example, let's say one of your goals was to get a certain adoption rate for something you built, but you were under that rate. What could you have done during the project to get more buy in? Why didn't particular people want to use the [widget]? What were the political stumbling blocks? How could you do better on the next project?

You can use those two strategies for personal matters as well. Say you want to learn a particular skill that you're pretty sure you won't be very good at at least in the short term. You can define short term and long term goals/measures of success and the evaluate whether or not you're on the right track periodically as appropriate and then adjust as necessary. Part of this process could be that learning that skill isn't a priority for you anymore now that you know more about it and chalk it up to an opportunity to learn more about yourself, your interests, and possibly your limitations.

tl;dr Everything can be a learning experience. If you decide that learning and growing as a person and a business professional is a measure of success, nothing will be a complete failure and you have measurable ways to do better next time.
posted by Kimberly at 1:50 PM on February 8, 2011

I have no direct advice, but this Tom Robbins quote has helped me get through this failure of a graduate program that I'm in:
So you think that you're a failure, do you? Well, you probably are. What's wrong with that? In the first place, if you've any sense at all you must have learned by now that we pay just as dearly for our triumphs as we do for our defeats. Go ahead and fail. But fail with wit, fail with grace, fail with style. A mediocre failure is as insufferable as a mediocre success.
posted by auto-correct at 1:54 PM on February 8, 2011 [10 favorites]

Heh, I just got a creepy "provisional pass" in my grad program. I think about whether I'm using situations that come my way to practice poise, tolerance for ambiguity, thinking outside the box/questioning assumptions/not thinking too rigidly, being careful about pride, adherence to values and principles... Basically, I try to focus on how instead of what, because that's what I can control. And I keep a short list of plan Bs.
posted by zeek321 at 2:05 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

As far as books that might interest you in this area, I'd recommend Carol Dweck's Mindset, although there are also plenty of her academic papers that tell the same story. Her research is all on the way you frame your ability, as far as thinking of growth vs. fixed traits. Thinking about those efforts in terms of how you can grow through new experiences tends to have better results in the end.
posted by bizzyb at 2:05 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

This might be more or less possible depending on your field (this is a pretty sciencey answer), but my research mentors have told me to aim to do projects where the failures are interesting. The suggestions above are all applicable for "the equipment exploded and all my mice died" type failures, but if you're talking about failure to get results that look like what you expected, you may have some control in terms of how you choose and frame your questions. If you have influence over what projects you work on, you can try to shape them this way.

A good test for this is to think about what you'd conclude based on the different outcomes if the result came out every different way you can think of. If lots of the answers are "it would be boring" or "it would be uninterpretable", then you have a higher likelihood of boring or uninterpretable outcomes. On the other hand, if the answers would be like "theory X was supported" vs. "theory Y" vs. "both theories are wrong and something else is true", then you are more likely to end up with a conclusion you can move forward from, even if it's not what you expected.
posted by heyforfour at 2:18 PM on February 8, 2011

First of all you have to define what success looks like FOR THIS PROJECT, and also what failure looks like. It could be that THAT project will be a total failure if it doesn't meet a hard deadline, but THIS project can fudge the deadline as long as specific quality standards are met.

So for each project: what does success mean? Put a not in front of each thing, and if it does NOT meet a success criterion the project is a failure. What does failure mean? List all the things which, if they happened, would definitely make the project a failure.

Not to go into detail but there is a method called the STRADA method which basically involves taking all your failure criteria, figuring out what could go wrong that would make those failures happen, and figuring out how to stop those things from going wrong. You also figure out what to do to make the successes happen. But mostly you'll find that not-failure covers success anyway.

It's also important to be clear and speak up as soon as you're worried. "Boss, I think the dwinkelizer might not be ready by the 15th, are there any features we can drop? Or can we present it later?" Never ever let these things fester.
posted by tel3path at 2:54 PM on February 8, 2011

Get other people involved in the process. If you think you're likely to fail at something, it's probably because you're not particularly confident or experienced in that area, and gathering lots of support and feedback and resources will help you learn. It also helps quiet the judge-y part of the perfectionist brain - if you're talking things over with people and doing research, then you've got real, live opinions to work with, not just internal self-doubt.
posted by ella wren at 2:59 PM on February 8, 2011

Especially in science, if you don't fail sometimes, you're not doing it right. Never failing means that you only do absolutely safe projects where you already know what the answer is -- which means, by definition, you aren't learning much and you aren't pushing the envelope of what we already know.

I start to get worried when I haven't been failing as much recently. I begin to fear that it means I'm not challenging myself enough.
posted by forza at 3:16 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Addendum to the last: this doesn't mean you should seek failure willy-nilly. What you want to do is fail in the right way -- not because of something obvious you should have known how to do or should have planned for, but because of something non-obvious you can learn from. If you plan your projects with the goal of avoiding the first kind of failure, and allowing the possibility of the second -- indeed, in some instances, even flirting with the possibility of the second -- you'll eventually grow to have the right relationship with failure.
posted by forza at 3:18 PM on February 8, 2011

If you're a Ph.D. student, then you should be aware that a project failing is almost always a better research outcome than a problem succeeding. When a project fails, you have the opportunity to dissect it and evaluate it. You use your study of the points of failure to disprove hypotheses, learn new things, build theory, and improve the next project. In contrast, if a project succeeds, it's vary difficult to learn why it succeeded. Was it because you were right? Was it dumb luck? That's a difficult position to be in.

Research projects nearly always fail. That's why it's research. If we knew the answers ahead of time, we wouldn't have to do the project. If you take failure as inevitable, and look forward to everything that you can learn from that failure, then the worst possible outcome is that your project succeeds. Because then you're done, and what do you do next?
posted by yeolcoatl at 3:21 PM on February 8, 2011

Have you ever read Martin A. Scwhartz's essay, "The importance of stupidity in scientific research"? I found the entire article heartening, and bits like the following particularly helpful:

"What makes it difficult is that research is immersion in the unknown. We just don't know what we're doing. We can't be sure whether we're asking the right question or doing the right experiment until we get the answer or the result....Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant."

Or, in other words, if you're doing research and a terrifying question occurs to you--the kind your brain automatically wants to reject because there's no way you know how to do that or answer that and so trying would almost certainly be some kind of failure--and if you go talk to your adviser, or to a mentor, and they can't give you a simple answer to your question, then the proper answer to that terrifying blankness is to press forward rather than turn back.

And pressing that hard against the limits of your own knowledge is going to lead pretty regularly to failures of one kind or another, because--as with so many things--I think finding answers to new questions is just one of those things that doesn't work until it does.

Or, as Thomas Edison supposedly said: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."
posted by colfax at 4:26 PM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

"How do I practice a mindset or get into the habit of treating at least some likely-to-fail project situations as opportunities for learning ... ?"

Practice and habit involve doing something repeatedly in order to become accustomed to it or do it better.

To make this a practice, or a habit, do it more often - at LEAST every day. Several times a day is even better.

Start each day by defining at least one task you expect to finish by the end of the day and specifying success and failure. For example: if your project involves writing a new feature for your company's software, you might say, "Today, I'll code the function to look up the shipping costs for the customer's order. To succeed, I have to (a) finish by the end of the day, and (b) always get the correct shipping amount."

At the end of the day, assess the task. Did you succeed? Why or why not? What are all the things you can learn from a failure? For example:

* I didn't budget time for the department meeting; I can do better about tracking all my time commitments next time.
* I didn't realize the shipping tables were so complicated; if I spend a few minutes examining the database before setting a task due date, I can do better next time.
* I didn't listen when my teammate was explaining how multiple items affect the shipping totals. Next time, I can remember the consequences of brushing off a teammate's info.
* I didn't understand how the underlying foo function works. Now that I've learned foo, I'll be able to code something like this faster.

Note that the questions "What can I do better?" or "What would I like to have happen differently?" are better than "What did I do wrong?"

If you're taking a moment EVERY DAY to examine your own work from a perspective of "How can I do this better?" and "What can I learn from this?", you may find you're less paralyzed by a fear of failing.

If you can apply this to something you're doing for fun - learning a language, learning an instrument, improving your golf game - that will help even more.
posted by kristi at 4:45 PM on February 8, 2011

Hopefully this will get past the Self Linking police since it's something I wrote a few months ago called, coincidentally, How To Fail Successfully.

Or to look at it another way: Success is simply repeated failing + one more try.
posted by Ookseer at 11:30 PM on February 8, 2011

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