Thousands of articles and books tell us how important failure is in order to accomplish anything. To quote one author: “Failure is simply a price we pay to achieve success […] The more you fail, the more you learn. The more you learn, the better you get.”1 It sounds true, motivates positive behavior, and there’s examples of perseverance that are cited to back this conclusion.
There’s also a linguistic trick that primes us to believe it. When you are physically falling, it’s much better to fall forward. Obviously, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” But is there an inherent, and even indispensable, virtue in failure? And what can we learn from it?
Do We Learn from Failures?
Isn’t the suggestion that we don’t learn from failures ridiculous? After all, when we are learning, we inevitably make mistakes. Mistakes, learning and successes are usually found not very far from each other. But such constellations are a fertile ground for causal fallacies: “X happened and then Y happened, therefore X causes Y.” Possibly. But we need to be careful about such conclusions.
Let’s take a look at what statistics and science have to tell us about the contribution of failures and successes to our learning.
One study has shown that first-time entrepreneurs with venture-capital backing have a 21% chance of succeeding.2 If you were to look at those who failed at their first attempt, what chance do you expect they have in their second venture? The answer is, almost exactly the same: 22%. That’s a very small improvement.
In contrast, the entrepreneurs who succeeded in their first venture and went on to try again have a 30% chance of succeeding. These statistical results are at odds with the ‘fail forward’ claims. Why is that?
Your Brain on Success and Failure
On neurological level, the brain responds differently to successes and failures. A study on information persistence in neurons observed monkeys learning to make the right choice between two options. It noted: “Behavioral responses are more often correct and single neurons more accurately discriminate between the possible responses when the previous response was correct.”3
With two options, knowing your choice was wrong is just as good as knowing the other one is right. But the study subjects were not learning from unsuccessful outcomes.
Earl K. Miller, one of the authors, observed: “After a correct answer, neurons processed information more sharply and effectively, and the monkey was more likely to get the next answer correct as well.” How did failures contribute? “After an error, there was no improvement,” Miller said. “Only after successes, not failures, did brain processing and the monkeys’ behavior improve.”4
The way neurons in human brain facilitate learning isn’t fundamentally different from primates. Even though mistakes are inevitable while learning, the evidence on a neurological level shows that without successes there is no learning.
How Much Information Does It Carry?
One article exclaims: “Failure teaches you more than success ever could.” There are two ways this statement could be true: If failure motivated or more strongly reinforced its lesson — which we’ve seen is not true – or if that lesson contained more useful information. So how much information is carried by a failure compared to a success?
Baking bread requires getting many things right — the ingredients, their ratios, the kneading, the time and temperature for yeast to work, and baking temperature and time. If you get a disappointing result, there’s plenty of things that might have gone wrong. Knowing that some variables were wrong doesn’t tell you what their right values are.
When you’re learning to ride a bicycle, it’s the moments when you have the balance that give you valuable information about what works. There’s a lot more ways to do something wrong than there are to do it right.
While we can extract valuable lessons from a failure, it’s the success that ‘teaches you more than failure ever could.’
The Right Reason to Keep Trying
We’ve seen that our brains are wired to learn more rapidly from successes, that successes inform our learning more than failures, and that these advantages are demonstrated in real-life ventures. Does that mean that you cannot learn from failures, or that we always learn the right lesson? No, it doesn’t, as we will explore in the next article.
The ‘fail fast and fail forward’ mantra tries to steer people towards the right behavior — don’t get discouraged and try again until you succeed. The more complicated truth is that we grow by solving challenges (which often takes repeated attempts). The value of failure in and of itself is small to none. But grit and perseverance in face of setbacks and failures will lead to success, which leads to growth.
Maxwell, J. C. Failing forward: turning mistakes into stepping stones for success. Thomas Nelson Inc. (2007). ↩
Gompers, Paul, et al. “Performance persistence in entrepreneurship.” Journal of Financial Economics 96.1 (2010): 18-32. ↩
Histed, Mark H., Anitha Pasupathy, and Earl K. Miller. “Learning substrates in the primate prefrontal cortex and striatum: sustained activity related to successful actions.” Neuron 63.2 (2009): 244-253. ↩
Halber, Deborah. “Why we learn more from our successes than our failures.” MIT News, 29 July 2009. ↩