Learn to Fail Up or It’ll Bring You Down
Ever since quitting my 9–5 pay cheque and taking those first few steps on my entrepreneurial journey, the one thing that I’ve kept consistent throughout is education. I was given great advice early on that if there’s one habit that’s consistent among successful people it was a commitment reading or education. As a green-horn start-up founder, a lot of my self-education has been on simply getting started, however a huge element of that has been focused on myself. The biggest chance I can give my businesses is to be personally as productive as I can be with the right systems in place. If I’m able to kick ass like some nerdy, business orientated Chuck Norris, everything else will follow suit.
One thing I have noticed is that the concepts in the best books on self-improvement I was already aware of, just not in the same context. A lot of the practical methods, whether it be recent books by Mark Manson or the ancient wisdom of the Stoics, fit snuggly within an engineering context. In fact, personally, I find putting these ideas in this context helps to visualise them and put them into practice in a systematic way. Although, I am biased as an engineer.
I want to share these with you in an effort to give you the tools to engineer your own life for success. The first concept I want to talk to you about is failure.
Failure IS an Option
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
-Thomas Edison, Inventor
Failure not only is an option, it should be the option. There are so many facets to failure that are vital to understand, but I am going to focus in on a specific part today; learning from it and making it a crucial part of how we operate. We’re going to do that by considering a feedback loop in a system.
The above image is a very simple systems block diagram. You have an input, it goes through some transformation or analysis in the ‘system’ and from there we get an output. The addition of a feedback loop, however, takes the output and uses it to affect the system in some way for future inputs. A basic example is the thermostat in your home. The input is the room temperature, the system takes that info, analyses it and makes a decision on whether to turn your heating on or off. The output is the new room temperature. If the room temperature rises beyond a certain point, this is fed back into the system and the heating systems are switched off.
The feedback loop can be simple, such as an on/off decision or the feedback can actually improve the system itself, such as in machine learning, so that the outputs become finer in resolution and effectiveness.
“To develop foresight, you need to practice hindsight.”
- Jane McGonigal, Game Designer
Failure is when the output we get wasn’t what we wanted to achieve at the outset. Contrary to that inner asshole voice which says “Wow! You failed, what a loser!” a failed experiment is perfectly normal. Get comfortable with it, make it your best friend you invite it over for sleepovers.
A boiled down version of the scientific method is hypothesis, experimentation and conclusion. You don’t see many scientists losing their nut over an experiment that failed to prove their hypothesis. Instead, they feed the result back into their hypothesis and keep cycling through the process until they get a breakthrough or are proven utterly wrong, in which case that knowledge still has value. Those findings are still recorded because knowing what doesn’t work is one more step on the journey to finding what does. The biggest breakthroughs are built on the back of a compendium of failures, large and small.
Just change the words hypothesis, experimentation and conclusion to input, system and output and you have the exact same concept. It is a continual system of improvement that, in this case, helps us to advance human knowledge. Even if scientists prove their hypothesis, other scientists repeat the experiment and try to make it fail before anyone will accept it as valid. Unless your hypothesis is mind numbingly basic, proving it on your first go is usually treated with suspicion and you will test again perhaps under more strenuous conditions, putting your ‘system’ through its paces.
The point is, when points of failure occur, we shouldn’t get flustered. Firstly, simply by treating life as an experiment, we can begin to expect failure as an acceptable outcome. We’re less attached to that outcome because we anticipated it might not work. Instead of a string of swearwords, failure can be met with “ah, okay, that didn’t work. Hmm, how about we try this instead…” then you go and do it. We need to put test our own systems with an open mind, and through doing so we will become more effective in whatever we’re trying to achieve. Goals that once seemed impossible become virtually automatic because we will have developed a system over time that makes them easy!
Failure gives you an answer. Failure is an opportunity to readjust your system. Something in your ‘system’ failed, how can you modify it for a better outcome in future?
Putting it into Practice
Okay, raise your hands if you’ve said a phrase similar to, “if only I was more motivated, I would stick to my diet/fitness routine/work goals”? Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. By that definition most of us are completely insane, and I can’t disagree with old Albert on this one. I’ve spoken about this before; motivation is not even close to the answer to our problems. Motivation lasts a couple of days and then we crumble. Yet we lie to ourselves and say “If I only had more of it, it’d all work.” It is a damaging belief that is holding so many of us back, forcing us to ‘Groundhog Day’ on our goals.
“Motivation is crap. Motivation comes and goes.”
- David Goggins, Navy Seal and Ultra-marathon Runner
Instead, we have to improve our systems by staring our failures in the face. Let’s take the example of Gertrude. Gertrude, like many of us, wants to lose weight. This goal is her ‘input’ and our example of an “If only I was motivated” might look something like this:
Predictably, every New Year’s Eve, she’ll resolve to finally get fit. She’ll get a gym membership, go a couple of times, pay a few months before finally cancelling and then rinse and repeat for next year. This cycle is so common, not only do gyms rely on it, it’s led the prevailing view on New Year’s resolutions to be one of cynicism. What a dreadful way to look at self-improvement. Somewhere we know we should be improving ourselves. We’re using that cynicism as a mask so we don’t have to acknowledge our failures.
So, what is Gertrude to do? The things we could say here could fill volumes, with every which way of developing better goals (inputs), having better systems and ways of talking to ourselves (Atomic Habits by James Clear is a good start). Today, however, we’re focusing in on just this idea of the feedback loop.
A huge part of that, is when we fail, asking the right questions. As we’ve mentioned, ‘motivation’ isn’t the answer, instead we need to feed something useful back into our system. We need to get to the bottom of why we’re not achieving our goals. A great, simple method for this is the toddler method. Repeatedly asking why until you have no more answers. For Gertrude, it might look like this;
“I failed going to the gym,”
“Because I’m too tired after work,”
“I often go to bed late,”
“I often eat late,”
“Because I have to go out to buy food,”
“Because I don’t do a weekly shop,”
And so on…
It turns out ‘not being good at going to the gym’ has little to do with Gertrude’s motivation. Through this exercise, already multiple smaller goals have revealed themselves. i.e. doing a weekly shop and going to bed on time. These insights can help us improve our system, instead of our larger goal that we find difficult, we can break it down into smaller, easily achievable goals. It’s a little like building a foundation, achieving these smaller goals will make our bigger goals easier. You may find these foundation blocks help in other areas too. Maybe Gertrude isn’t performing at work, why? Same reason she’s not going the gym, she doesn’t sleep enough. Therefore, after just a couple of iterations of failure and feedback, maybe Gertrude’s system diagram looks a little like this:
Maybe week 1, she doesn’t lose any weight, but as she improves her system she might end up losing 0.2lb per week, then getting better 0.5lb/week, before you know it she’s developed a system that’s shedding 2–3lbs per week. There’s every chance she still fails to go the gym. Great! More to experiment on! Gertrude has embraced failure but she hasn’t given up. She’s losing weight regardless because she’s making better food choices now that she shops weekly. Sometimes the system might not end up looking how we thought it would, especially if we keep an open mind. She’s decided to experiment with a 10 minute walk during her lunch breaks and she’s going to measure the outcome. A system for change which originally included the gym, now doesn’t entertain it at all. Gertrude doesn’t care, she’s happy and achieving her goals. Big round of applause for Gertrude everyone, she’s fictional, but I feel she’s earned it.
“Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not who someone else is today.”
-Jordan Peterson, Clinical Psychologist
Sit down and make this a process you do regularly. You’ll be surprised how quickly small, and I mean minuscule, incremental changes to your engine of improvement will compound over time and pay you dividends. YOU are the experiment and you are the driving force behind your engine of improvement. You can only do this by first acknowledging your failure. Only compare yourself to yesterday and just be a tiny bit better. You don’t have to eat a salad every day to eat healthier than last week. A single 10-minute walk is better than 0 minutes of walking.
“A Journey of a Thousand Miles starts with a single step”
- Chinese Proverb
I have tonnes more to say on this subject, including the importance of micro-goals, micro-habits, effective self-criticism, comparing yourself to others and the wider prospect of developing self-improvement through engineering methodology. If you enjoyed this, have your own tips and are interested in hearing more, please comment, like, clap, follow, retweet or send a pigeon so I can get a gauge of who’s enjoying this stuff and what ya’ll want. Let’s start a conversation!
This article was written by Cameron Readman. If you’d like to know more or receive notifications for future articles, please head over to the Website and subscribe at the bottom of the page!