039: Failure is Not Optional

In This Episode: Humans don’t like to fail. Sure, sometimes failure has catastrophic results, so surgeons work hard to ensure their operations are successful. But when we don’t allow ourselves, or our children, or our employees to fail, they can’t reach their full potential. Here’s why you should actually embrace failure.

039: Failure is Not Optional

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Show Notes

  • To help support Uncommon Sense, see the Patron’s Page, or the form in the sidebar.
  • I only barely touched on the ideas in Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. I’ve read it, and there’s a lot more to delve into — highly recommended if you found her ideas at all interesting, or want more tools to help you push toward a growth mindset.


Welcome to Uncommon Sense. I’m Randy Cassingham.

It’s not just OK to fail, it’s actually a requirement to reach the greatest success. If you never fail, you’re clearly not pushing yourself hard enough. There’s a big difference between failing and giving up.

One of the first business books I ever read was about sales. The guy who wrote it was a very successful salesman, and in the business he was in, only one in 50 calls he made to potential clients resulted in a sale. Some salesmen would be depressed at so much rejection. This guy, and I’m sorry that decades later I can’t remember who he was or what he sold, he didn’t get angry or depressed at being turned down so much. Rather, it energized him: if he was only going to sell something one time out of 50, he said, the faster he got through the 49 non-sales, the sooner he would get to the one who would buy! Then he’d celebrate that win, that commission, and start over on the next 50.

He was no fool: as I said, he was a very successful salesman — so much so, he wrote a book about his methods. And no doubt it sold well!

I didn’t want to go into sales myself, but I have the same attitude about This is True: only a small percentage of people who subscribe to the free edition of the newsletter will upgrade to the paid edition, yet I’ve always said that if someone can’t afford to upgrade, they’re welcome to stay on the free distribution for as long as they’d like. Because at some point, things may be better for them: they might get a job, come into an inheritance, or whatever, and upgrade then. Or they may have a friend that they suddenly realize would really like the newsletter, and recommend it to them because they see it every week and it’s fresh in their mind.

New readers subscribe pretty much every day. Some percentage of them will upgrade, and those Premium subscribers make my job possible. I’m really happy to say it’s more than one out of 50! But even if they never do anything that supports This is True, at least those free edition readers are prompted to think more, and to make the world around them a better place. And for me, that’s a win.

Getting back to the bigger picture, humans need to fail because that’s how they learn. Do everything you can to keep your child from failing is stealing from their future. Worse, they develop a fear of failure, and don’t push themselves because …they might fail! And then, when failure does happen, and it will, it really hurts: they retreat even more, push even less, and don’t get to see what their limits are. Which is really sad: they could have been a great writer, or a great scientist, or an amazing leader, or a fantastic teacher, but the world will never know because they don’t try because hey: they might fail.

Also, by choosing to play it safe they don’t learn resilience, which we all really need in life: friends and family will get injured or sick, will die, or will let us down in some way. Resilience helps us cope when, not if, that happens. By learning resilience, we build the capacity to push harder toward success at whatever tasks we choose. We learn that success isn’t easy, it doesn’t come just because we wish for it, but rather we learn deep down that it takes work and persistence to succeed. And it takes failure. Like the salesman I talked about at the beginning, we can even learn to get joy from failure, because we know that by getting up and moving forward again, we’re much more likely to be successful.

JK Rowling knew that intuitively. She says she got the idea for Harry Potter while riding the train, that the entire concept popped into her mind “fully formed.” That was in 1990, and she started writing. But life kept happening: her mother died, she was married and divorced, she moved to Portugal, then Scotland. She was depressed, on welfare, and had to write in coffee shops to stay warm because she couldn’t afford to heat her flat. But notice that part: she kept writing, no matter how long it took. In fact it took her six years to finish the first Harry Potter book, and she sent the manuscript to all 12 major publishers in business at the time.

Every one of them rejected it. She still didn’t quit: she sent it to smaller publishing houses until she found one willing to take a chance on her. When Bloomsbury published it in 1997, they only printed a thousand copies, and they sent half of those to libraries. Yet she won the British Book Award for Children’s Book of the Year, and now the Harry Potter series has sold more than half a billion books. In 2016 the Sunday Times estimated her net worth at around 600 million pounds, or more than three-quarters of a billion dollars, even though she is famous for supporting numerous charitable causes which surely has used up a lot of her fortune.

Another example is comic actor Jim Carrey. The first time he did stand-up, at a comedy club in Toronto, he was booed off the stage. As he got better, he auditioned for Saturday Night Live, and failed. So how did he get to be one of the top comic actors in the world? He used mind tricks to push him forward. One famous story is, he wrote himself a check for $10 million with the notation “Acting Services Rendered” — and put it in his wallet. It stayed there for seven years — until he got an actual $10 million paycheck for acting, in that case for “Dumb and Dumber”.

All this comes down to mindset, says Stanford University professor Carol Dweck. She contrasts people with what she calls a fixed mindset to others with what she calls a growth mindset.

Children with fixed mindsets would rather redo an easy puzzle than try a harder one. They feel smart when they get it right, and they succeed only because they took the easy way. They don’t want to feel the disappointment of failing to complete a harder puzzle. When they grow up and go into the workforce, they’re the sort who surround themselves with people who agree with them. They don’t thrive as much as they could, and their businesses sure don’t. It’s one of the big factors in why about half of all businesses fail in the first year or so.

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, I’ve lost almost 300 games,” said basketball legend Michael Jordan. “Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot — and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

It sounds counterintuitive, but he’s right. Jordan has a growth mindset: he uses his failures to learn how to improve, and that’s precisely why he’s a “basketball legend.”

Thomas Edison famously failed more than 10,000 times to design a commercially viable lightbulb, but he didn’t give up after 10 tries, 100 tries, even 1,000 tries. Well along the way someone suggested he just give up, that clearly he was a failure. He replied, “Why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitely over 9,000 ways an electric lightbulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp.” After another thousand tries, he got it.

Edison had learned an important lesson along the way: the more you fail, the less afraid you are to fail again. Obviously he kept going until he got it right, using what he learned along the way to improve his abilities over time. Over his lifetime he was granted more than a thousand patents. That’s a growth mindset.

The good news, Dr. Dweck says, is if you have a fixed mindset you can change to a growth mindset. She trained children that intelligence wasn’t fixed — that they could expand their minds, learn new things, and get smarter in the process. When they got such assurances, the children were willing to work harder and longer, to reach a goal, and learned they could accomplish those goals. If you haven’t guessed by now, that’s a great way for kids to learn to develop Uncommon Sense.

It’s smart to assign tasks to employees that exceed their supposed capabilities, at least by some amount. It allows them to rise to the occasion, seek out help, learn, and challenge themselves. And you can work on yourself, too: the late Harvard researcher David McClelland found that when you set stretch goals for yourself that have a 50-70 percent chance of success, you’re more likely than not to achieve the goal, which gives you confidence to stretch even further.

Society scoffs, laughs, and belittles failure. Yeah, well, you already know that most people aren’t both smart and have a growth mindset. Knowing that the truth is that failure helps us be more successful, our task is to learn to ignore the people who say you will fail, or at the very least learn something from them and then continue if your goal still seems warranted. For example, in 1994 my co-workers at NASA absolutely couldn’t grasp how I could possibly leave the so-called security of a day job to make my living on the Internet, but I knew deep down that, well, my chances of success were 50-70 percent, so I took the leap without their support, and here we are.

So, what are the limitations? When do you decide to push it and be willing to fail, or not? We can’t just be reckless. Plus, the phrase “failure is not an option” came from NASA, from the near-disastrous Apollo 13 mission. The answer is, it depends on the stakes. When lives are at stake, or there’s another huge potential loss, then more caution is in order. But you know what happened after Apollo 13? NASA learned a lot that not only aided in the successes of Apollo 14 through 17, which all landed on the moon and accomplished most of the scientific discovery of the Apollo era, but those lessons learned are still informing NASA mission planners today. Within NASA, Apollo 13 is known as a “successful failure.” That’s an institutional growth mindset.

But really, winning a basketball game? No one is going to die if Jordan doesn’t make a free-throw, or doesn’t get the rebound. When the risks are lower, that’s when you push harder, take chances, and hone skills to reach the ever-higher payoffs. That’s how people with Uncommon Sense do it, anyway!

Just a quick note that due to a daunting travel schedule, I’ll be skipping episodes every other week or so until I can get caught up. I’m getting this one done less than 24 hours before leaving for another trip, but hey: I judged my chances of success at getting it done before I left at more than 50 percent, and here we are.

The Show Notes and transcript for this episode are at thisistrue.com/podcast39, where you can also comment on the ideas in this episode.

I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.

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8 Comments on “039: Failure is Not Optional

  1. I have wondered where the platitude “failure is not an option” came from. I have always looked upon it as foolish since if you think about it, failure is *always* an option (though maybe not the most desirable one).

    Also, in my long-ago childhood (I have a couple of months yet to run in my 66th year) I learned the old adage: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” (The song “High Hopes” from the 1959 Frank Sinatra movie “A Hole in the Head” seems to fit as well.)

  2. We work to create safe to fail environments for our development teams. We build things that can not be purchased and as a result we have to try and at times fail. We removed the blame that comes with failure and that is key. How? We change that conversation to “Okay that did not work, great, what did we learn from it? Great let’s improve that and try it again!”

    You would be amazed at what comes from this approach. We no longer spend massive amounts of time trying to get it perfect and missing the mark. Rather we spend a short amount of time, try it out, test and see how we did. Then do it all over again. Taking far less time than trying to get it perfect.
    99.99999% of us do work where lives do not depend on it. So “Failure is not an option” does not apply. So go forward and Try and know it’s okay to fail.

    Exactly what I was talking about. Thanks for putting it into different words that might resonate more for some. -rc

    • Hello Doug,

      I would disagree with your assessment of the percentage of people where lives do not depend on failure. There are thousands of jobs (doctors, nurses, engineers, air traffic control, police, pilots, ships captains, to name just a few) where failure cannot be an option. Even some crafts and trades (such as scaffolders) cannot let failure be an option. I understand your point, but your percentage means that only one in 10 million are in a position of “cannot fail”. Thanks for my two cents worth (or as here in Canada, two nickels worth, since we no longer have pennies).

      • I disagree. Most of us, even those professions you mentioned, have jobs where failure always is a possible result.

        That’s why we develop safety routines, procedures and failsafes. And if your profession involves a great deal of risk, you assess the risks and train to handle them upfront. After an incident, you evaluate past failures, and learn from them. In some professions debriefs are part of the routine. All because failure is always an option.

        In most cases that prevents a single or even multiple failures from being catastrophic.

  3. Abraham Lincoln was, for the most part, an unsuccessful politician — but he did not give up and we know the rest of that story.

  4. There is a great TV show called “Million Dollar Genius”. It is (was) on the History Channel and is all about failure and overcoming it with perseverance and learning from the failures. It’s great watching it because the show demonstrates how difficult it was to push an idea or invention forward, with substantial costs and all the naysayers (including family). I guess it would be the modern equivalent of watching Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb. Of course the show only focuses on the successes.

    Huh… haven’t even heard of that one. Sounds interesting. -rc

  5. I love this piece about failure and not giving up on yourself. Overcoming the challenges of life and moving on to the next one is enough to keep one busy for a lifetime. Thanks y’all.

  6. In Boy Scouts, one of the harder things to teach both adult leaders and older Scouts is, “let the boys fail.” As boys were gathering for a campout, the Scoutmaster saw that one pack was rather small — too small to contain a sleeping bag. He called over the Patrol Leader (an older scout in charge of a group, usually 16 or 17yo) and asked if he had checked the packs, and the boy was all cocky, “oh yeah, I took care of that.” Well, the Troop left for the campsite, and that patrol leader, the asst. patrol leader, and the negligent Scout had to zip together two sleeping bags and spend a miserable weekend. Packs were always checked before every subsequent campout.


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