Tech + Health

01.05.14

Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win

There’s something to notice about successful people: they act quickly, even if they may fail.

[Ed’s note: This piece is excerpted from Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win by Ryan Babineaux, PhD., and John Krumboltz, PhD., with the permission of Tarcher/Penguin. Copyright 2013 Ryan Babineaux, PhD., and John Krumboltz, PhD]

In the book Art and Fear, the artists Ted Orland and David Waylon share a story about a ceramics teacher who tried an experiment with his class.

The teacher divided the students into two groups. Those sitting on the left side of the studio were to be graded solely on the quantity of their work, while those on the right, solely on the quality. The instructor informed the students in the quantity group that a simple rule would be applied to evaluate their grades: those who produced fifty pounds of pots would get an A, those who produced forty pounds a B, and so on.

For the quality group, the instructor told the students that he would assign a course grade based on the single best piece produced over the duration of the course. So if a student created a first-rate pot on day one of the course and did nothing else for the term, he would still get an A.

When the end of the quarter arrived and it came to grading time, the instructor made an interesting discovery: the students who created the best work, as judged by technical and artistic sophistication, were the quantity group. While they were busy producing pot after pot, they were experimenting, becoming more adept at working with the clay, and learning from the mistakes on each progressive piece.

In contrast, the students in the quality group carefully planned out each pot and tried to produce refined, flawless work, and so they only worked on a few pieces over the length of the course. Because of their limited practice, they showed little improvement.

We like this story because it points out an important principle: successful people take action as quickly as possible, even though they may perform badly.

Instead of trying to avoid making mistakes and failing, they actively seek opportunities where they can face the limits of their skills and knowledge so that they can learn quickly. They understand that feeling afraid or underprepared is a sign of being in the space for optimal growth and is all the more reason to press ahead. In contrast, when unsuccessful people feel unprepared or afraid, they interpret it as a sign that it is time to stop, readdress their plans, question their motives, or spend more time preparing and planning.

“Successful people take action as quickly as possible, even though they may perform badly.”

Let us ask you some questions: When was the last time you accomplished something that you are really proud of? How did you feel in the time before you reached this accomplishment? Was it comfortable? Easy? Did you have to do things that pushed you beyond your abilities? Did you make mistakes and mess up? If you are like most people, you will probably find that the times in your life when you grew and accomplished the most are also the times when you made the most mistakes and blunders and had to overcome the greatest obstacles.

Do It Badly, as Fast as You Can

When you encounter accomplishments of successful people—whether an enthralling stage performance, a beautiful work of art, an innovative business, or an ingenious invention—it can be easy to think that these accomplishments are the result of unusual brilliance and came into being perfectly formed.

But the truth is that most significant accomplishments arise out of hundreds of mistakes and failures. For example, a seasoned comedian, such as Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock, tries thousands of hastily conceived joke ideas, most of which flop, in small clubs and venues. Only a few performance ideas, after many revisions and improvements, make their way into the polished shows presented to national audiences.

Howard Schultz’s creation of Starbucks provides a good example of how success arises from many mistakes.

When Schultz first formed Starbucks, he had the idea of modeling the stores after Italian coffee shops, which would provide a new experience for customers in the United States. Although Schultz’s idea was a good starting point, the Starbucks coffee shops today have little resemblance to his initial concept. In fact, many things were wrong with his idea. In the original stores, the baristas wore bow ties, the menus were primarily in Italian (and annoyed the customers for being so), nonstop opera music played in the background, there were no chairs, and nonfat milk was not served. The coffee shops of today evolved through thousands of experiments, adjustments, and revisions along the way.

140103-fail-fast-often-book
‘Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win’ by Ryan Babineaux (Author), John Krumboltz (Author). 208 p. Tarcher. $11.84 ()

Failing quickly in order to learn fast—or what Silicon Valley entrepreneurs commonly call failing forward—is at the heart of many innovative businesses.

The idea is to push ahead with a product as soon as possible to gather feedback and learn about opportunities and constraints so that you can take the next step. This mind-set is at the heart of the brilliant work of Pixar Animation Studios. When Ed Catmull, the cofounder and president of Pixar, describes Pixar’s creative work, he says it involves a process of going from “suck” to “non-suck.” The moviemaking process begins with rough story boards where a few good ideas are buried amid tons of half-baked concepts and outright stinkers. The animation team then works its way through thousands of corrections and revisions before they arrive at a final cut. By giving themselves permission to fail again and again, animators weed out the bad ideas as quickly as possible and get to the place where real work can occur.

As Andrew Stanton, the director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E , describes, “My strategy has always been: Be wrong as fast as we can. Which basically means, we’re gonna screw up, let’s just admit that. Let’s not be afraid of that. But let’s do it as fast as we can so we can get to the answer. You can’t get to adulthood before you go through puberty. I won’t get it right the first time, but I will get it wrong really soon, really quickly.”

Giving yourself permission to make a mess of things is particularly important if you do any sort of creative work. (We should note that all people are creative—which is to say that they live in the real world, form ideas, come up with solutions to problems, have dreams, and forge their own path; your own life is your ultimate creation.)

In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott discusses the challenges faced in writing. She says that an essential aspect of getting work done is allowing yourself to write a “really shitty first draft.” You write a terrible first draft so that you can have a somewhat better second draft, and an even better third draft. As she says, “Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it.”

It is only sitting down and stringing together some words—despite not knowing what you want to write or where your narrative will go—that puts you into the place where the story can begin to unfold. This expresses an idea that is central to the Fail Fast approach: You can’t know what something is like, how you will feel about it, or what will result from it until you actually are doing it.

[Excerpted from Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win by Ryan Babineaux, PhD., and John Krumboltz, PhD., with the permission of Tarcher/Penguin. Copyright 2013 Ryan Babineaux, PhD., and John Krumboltz, PhD.]