Thursday, June 16, 2011

Commencement speaker states: learning from failure is limited "at best" (!)

I read something yesterday that struck me as so wrong it couldn't go without a response. This is from a commencement speech by Krista Marks (founder of the Kerpoof children's learning site) presented at the University of South Carolina and reprinted in Brad Feld's blog:

There is a belief that failure is somehow good – somehow beneficial. You hear people say, failure builds character, or fail early fail often. This is not only wrong – it is dangerous. What you learn from failure is limited at best – you learn what didn’t work. It tells nothing of what will. In contrast, what you learn from success is how to succeed. This is infinitely more valuable.

A perfect example is the success you celebrate today. How many people do you know who started with you, but aren’t sitting next to you today? How often did you have a friend or roommate who would moan and whine at the one or two times during the semester that they actually had to work hard, long hours – knowing that as an Engineer this was your daily reality? This is significant.

In fact, you now know one thing for certain. You know that with talent and determination and hard work, you can accomplish what few others can. You succeeded. In the future, taking on truly hard things – things that seem impossible – you will not be in uncharted waters. On the contrary, you will build more success.

That’s key. Success breeds success. It is not a question of whether you will achieve more success. The question is what it will look like.

"It's not only wrong - it is dangerous." This sentence calls into question pretty much every word that's been written or said on this site. And I disagree with it utterly. Let's break down Marks' first paragraph:

"What you learn from failure is limited at best - you learn what didn't work." Wrong. If you reflect honestly and with a will to improve, the lessons are almost unlimited. For example, you learn what you would have done differently that could have impacted the outcome - that's about self-improvement. You learn which assumptions you made didn't turn out as expected - that allows you to make better assumptions next time, and to validate those assumptions earlier and more cheaply (even, possibly, inviting "faster failure" next time). You learn, sometimes, that failure is holding on too long to a pet idea... or letting it go too soon. And on and on.

"What you learn from success is how to succeed." Embedded in this statement is an extremely dangerous assertion - that success can be readily replicated: just do what worked last time. This is delusional. The reasons that some ventures succeed, in this complex world, involve a lot more than what we can control. Sometimes we happen to find ourselves in high-growth markets, with lots of wind at our back. Sometimes competitors make big mistakes. Sometimes we are lucky. (God bless luck!) Most importantly, if we take on a new challenge, even in an area we know well, the chances that it will play out as it did when we succeeded earlier are, well, zero.

In my most charitable reading of Marks' words, she is saying that you should focus on success vs. failure because it is more productive to feel good about yourself than to beat up on yourself. Success builds confidence, and confidence informs success.

Yet failures do not have to debilitate. They can also strengthen. Knowing, for one thing, that no one is perfect should also help us deal with inevitable setbacks.

But the most important thing about not disregarding things that didn't go our way is learning. Very few companies or individuals scrutinize their successes for things that they should do differently next time. They are too busy basking in their good feelings or enjoying the rewards of their success. And they should do that.

Mistakes and failures are typically not times for celebrating. But after we absorb and mourn the bad news, they give us a moment to scrutinize what we're doing, to question our assumptions, and put plans together to do better next time.

If what Marks is saying is that we shouldn't seek out failure - we should always try to succeed - I can agree with that somewhat (though great entrepreneurs try out crazy ideas, many of which fail despite their best efforts, and some of which wildly succeed).

But saying there's not much we can learn from failure... that's not just throwing the baby out with the bathwater, it's also getting rid of the bathtub, the plumbing, and everything else.

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