Over 400,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to learn how to make better decisions, create new ideas, and avoid stupid errors. With more than 100,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub. To learn more about we what do, start here.

Turning Towards Failure

Turning toward failure

Our resistance to thinking about failure is especially curious in light of the fact that failure is so ubiquitous. ‘Failure is the distinguishing feature of corporate life,’ writes the economist Paul Ormerod, at the start of his book Why Most Things Fail, but in this sense corporate life is merely a microcosm of the whole of life. Evolution itself is driven by failure; we think of it as a matter of survival and adaptation, but it makes equal sense to think of it as a matter of not surviving and not adapting. Or perhaps more sense: of all the species that have ever existed, after all, fewer than 1 per cent of them survive today. The others failed. On an individual level, too, no matter how much success you may experience in life, your eventual story – no offence intended – will be one of failure. You bodily organs will fail, and you’ll die. (Source: The Antidote.)

If failure is so ubiquitous you would think that it would be treated as a more natural phenomenon; not exactly something to celebrate but not something that should be hidden away either. In the book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman visits a ‘Museum of Failed Products’ and comes away with quite a few insights into our reluctance to accept, or even acknowledge, our less successful ventures.

By far the most striking thing about the museum of failed products, though, has to do with the fact that it exists as a viable, profit-making business in the first place. You might have assumed that any consumer product manufacturer worthy of the name would have its own such collection, a carefully stewarded resource to help it avoid repeating errors its rivals had already made. Yet the executives arriving every week … are evidence of how rarely this happens. Product developers are so focused on their next hoped-for-success – and so unwilling to invest time or energy in thinking about their industry’s past failures – that they only belatedly realize how much they need, and are willing to pay, to access (the museum of failed products). Most surprising of all is the fact that many of the designers who have found their way to the museum of failed products, over the years, have come there in order to examine – or, alternatively, have been surprised to discover – products that their own companies had created and then abandoned. These firms were apparently so averse to thinking about the unpleasant business of failure that they had neglected even to keep samples of their own disasters.

I’ve spoken about Burkeman’s book before. There is a great chapter on the flaws related to goal setting and another on the Stoic technique of negative visualisation but they all come back to the concept of turning towards the possibility of failure.

The Stoic technique of negative visualisation is, precisely, about turning towards the possibility of failure. The critics of goal setting are effectively proposing a new attitude towards failure, too, since an improvisational, trial-and-error approach necessarily entails being frequently willing to fail.

So what does it all mean? If avoiding failure is as natural as failure itself, why should you embrace it (or even attempt an Antifragile way of life).

… it is also worth considering the subject of failure directly, in order to see how the desperate efforts of the ‘cult of optimism’ to avoid it are so often counterproductive, and how we might be better off learning to embrace it. The first reason to turn towards failure is that our efforts not to think about failure leave us with a severely distorted understanding of what it takes to be successful. The second is that an openness to the emotional experience of failure can be a stepping-stone to a much richer kind of happiness than can be achieved by focusing only on success.

It’s almost jarring how simple and sensical that is, considering our aversion to failure.

Accepting failure is becoming more conversational, even if we’re a ways from embracing it. ‘Learning from our mistakes’ has become the new business mantra, replacing ‘being innovative.’ Although, I can see this quickly losing its shine when the mistake is idiotic.

Burkeman notes, it’s just too easy to imagine how the Museum of Failed Products gets populated (it is also worth noting that successful products have a lot to do with luck.)

Back in Ann Arbor, at the museum of failed products, it wasn’t hard to imagine how a similar aversion to confronting failure might have been responsible for the very existence of many of the products lining its shelves. Each one must have made it through a series of meetings at which nobody realised that the product was doomed. Perhaps nobody wanted to contemplate the prospect of failure; perhaps someone did, but didn’t want to bring it up for discussion. Even if the product’s likely failure was recognised … those responsible for marketing it might well have responded by ploughing more money into it. This is a common reaction when a product looks like it’s going to be a lemon, since with a big enough marketing spend, a marketing manager can at least guarantee a few sales, sparing the company total humiliation. By the time reality sets in, (Robert) McMath notes in What Were They Thinking?, it is quite possible that ‘the executives will have been promoted to another brand, or recruited by another company.’ Thanks to a collective unwillingness to face up to failure, more money will have been invested in the doomed product, and little energy will have been dedicated to examining what went wrong. Everyone involved will have conspired – perhaps without realising what they’re doing – never to think or speak of it again.

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking is an eye-opening look at how the pursuit of happiness is causing us to be more unhappy than ever.