The Art of Failing

Emre Soyer
2 min readMay 23, 2022

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abelleee/Pixabay

“Failure is needed to become successful.”

“Even the most successful people have failed.”

“Don’t be afraid to fail.”

A lot of self-help advice emphasizes the importance of failing. It grabs attention, sounds true, and aims to motivate decision makers to act. But like in most such generic advice, there are several crucial nuances missing, which end up derailing decisions.

Silent Failures

For instance, past failure may indeed be common to many stories that end in success. But it would be equally (if not more) common to many stories that ultimately end in failure as well.

When learning from success, it’s easy to ignore those who didn’t succeed. That’s why benchmarking achievements is a flawed strategy to understand their true causes. As a result, one ends up investing in costly ideas and strategies that don’t make the desired difference.

Defining Failures

In settings like sports, the definitions of failure and defeat may be relatively well-defined and accepted by the majority. But in business and life, these definitions heavily depend on the values and aims of decision makers.

Consider a manager leaving a position that would eventually lead her/him to become the CEO and much wealthier. Is this a failure? What if the “success” would have led to health problems, less time with loved ones, or inability to focus on a passion project?

The assumption that there’s a clear and universal definition of failure undermines much advice for success.

Designing Failures

I used to practice Aikido. One of the first things I had to learn was not how to defend against or neutralize an attacker, but how to fall properly when beaten.

Not all failures are equal.

If decision makers wish to continue learning and eventually reach any type of achievement, they will need to ensure that

  • the pain of failure is bearable
  • it’s easy to get back up again

Hence, those who ultimately reach a certain level of success may not be particularly better at withstanding losses and defeats. Instead, they could be better at defining their failures and designing them in a way that doesn’t knock them out of the game, allowing them to continue their quests.

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Emre Soyer

behavioral scientist, co-author of The Myth of Experience