079: The Key to Success

In This Episode: The fear of failure is central to most of our lives. We worry about failing in business ventures, in personal relationships, and in our dreams. But what happens when you apply Uncommon Sense instead and embrace failure? Because that’s actually the key to success, and I’ll tell you how.

079: The Key to Success

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Show Notes

  • Help support Uncommon Sense: — yes, $5 helps!
  • I mentioned my coach wife: her web site is here.
  • I mentioned Dr. Tsaousides’ book Brainblocks: Overcoming the 7 Hidden Barriers to Success.
  • The scholarly paper published in the journal Nature is here (free access).


Welcome to Uncommon Sense, I’m Randy Cassingham.

The fear of failure is the worry you get when imagining the terrible things that could happen if you fail while working on some sort of goal. The problem is, such worry increases the chances of failure by making you feel like you should hold back or give up. That’s what my coach wife calls “Believing in the stories you tell yourself” — stories that are probably not true — and instead “unlearning your false assumptions.”

Her intuition and training is backed by research.

“Being successful relies to a large extent on your ability to leverage fear,” says Dr. Theo Tsaousides, a neuropsychologist and the Training Director of the Brain Injury Research Center at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. He studies goal achievement, and has found that only 10 percent of us succeed in achieving specific goals. That’s a 90 percent failure rate, but he believes we can reverse those numbers — achieve a 90 percent success rate — because he also says the brain is designed for success, to achieve goals.

So where is the disconnect? He calls the things that get in the way “brain blocks,” and even wrote a book with that title — I’ll link to it on the Show Page. The “blocks” getting in the way of achieving goals that he identified are: self doubt, procrastination, impatience, multitasking, rigidity, perfectionism, and negativity.

079: The Key to Success
Edison with the second model of his phonograph, Washington D.C., April 1878. (Photo: Library of Congress)

If you let them, all of those can interrupt the number one ingredient of success: action.

So, how do you avoid the brain blocks and instead “leverage fear” to increase your odds of success? “Redefine failure as discrepancy,” he says. He finds people have different definitions for “failure,” such as not trying to reach goals, starting but giving up, or not reaching the goal within a self-imposed deadline.

What does “discrepancy” mean, then, as something you might to redefine failure as? Simply, it’s missing the mark: not getting 100 percent of the way there. In other words, embrace the failure as a sign of progress, because it means you were taking action. “Discrepancies,” he explains, “provide you with information that you can study, explain, and learn from so you can recalibrate your future efforts.” Or, in other words, keep taking action, now informed with what you learned.

“As long as you continue making an effort,” he says, “there is no room for failure.”

“Ultimately,” he concludes, “what makes us fearless is not the fact that we do not experience fear, but that we are confident that we can deal with the consequences of our actions.”

To which I would also add: confidence that we also can deal with the consequences of actions outside our control — and isn’t that empowering?

Dr. Tsaousides is certainly not the only one working in this field.

Dr. Dashun Wang is the Founding Director of the Center for Science and Innovation at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He is also part of the core faculty at Northwestern’s Institute on Complex Systems, and yes, this can be a complex topic! He’s coming at behavioral science from an interesting angle: his Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D. degrees are all in physics.

To study failure, Dr. Wang used that background to take an unusual approach: he uses statistical analysis to understand behavior. Among other things, he and his team analyzed three-quarters of a million grant applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health to create a mathematical model to reliably predict their success or failure. Also thrown into the mix to test the model: 46 years’ worth of venture capital funded startups, and what Dr. Wang calls their “least conventional” data sets: 170,000 terrorist attacks.

By analyzing such a large number of projects in a wide variety of circumstances, they found what they called “previously unknown statistical signatures” which separate successful teams from unsuccessful teams which makes it possible to create a mathematical model which enabled them to predict outcomes.

That sounds impossible, but Wang gave an example: “If someone has applied for a grant and they are three failures in,” he said, “if we just look at the timing between the failures, we will be able to predict whether they will eventually succeed or not.” Because they found that as the successful teams went through the iterations, making a grant request, getting denied, and trying again, the successful teams got faster and faster at it, while the unsuccessful groups tended to start over from scratch, which takes longer because they failed to build on the elements that did work.

That NIH data base was a “graveyard full of human failures,” Dr. Wang said. “For every principal investigator, we know exactly when they failed, and we know how badly they failed because we know the scores” — the scores given to each grant proposal! “And we also know when they eventually succeeded, after failing over and over, and got their first grant.”

It took 24 pages to describe it all, but they arrived at what they call the “essential prerequisite for success.” Which is, Dr. Wang says, “Every winner begins as a loser.”

So what’s the real difference between success and failure? It wasn’t simple persistence. “You have to figure out what worked and what didn’t,” he says, “and then focus on what needs to be improved instead of thrashing around and changing everything.”

Let me paraphrase that: figure out what worked and what didn’t, and then focus on what needs to be improved, rather than just randomly trying something else. That sounds simple, but that’s what leads to the 90 percent failure rate that Dr. Tsaousides found!

“The people who failed didn’t necessarily work less” than successful people, Wang said. “It’s just that [those who failed] made more unnecessary changes.” Or in other words, they didn’t use the failures to inform the next iteration to make it work; they didn’t learn from their failures. The successful groups didn’t whine and cry and go home when they failed. They learned hard-fought lessons, adapted, and tried again. It seems obvious, but apparently it’s not to the 90 percent failure group!

So here’s what I found particularly interesting about Dr. Wang’s study: when they compared successful projects and failed projects, they found about the same number of tries. So it really isn’t persistence, as common sense might tell you! Instead, it’s accepting the failures along the way because they have lessons to teach — that’s the Uncommon Sense approach: it’s working smarter, rather than harder.

Obviously, not every failure will lead to success. But it’s clear that you have to risk failure to achieve success — to anticipate failures, rather than fear them. Because failure really is the path to success. So it’s actually not just a matter of embracing failure, you want to fail quickly! And get right back to adjusting things and trying again.

The Show Page for this episode is thisistrue.com/podcast79, which links to that dense, 24-page scholarly paper published last October in the journal Nature, and a place to comment. If you try to post a comment and it fails, try again!

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

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2 Comments on “079: The Key to Success

  1. After 56 years I have failed to find a reason for living but I’m still here, just existing so where do I go from here?

    Come up with a goal that would make you happy to accomplish — or, even better, a goal that will be fulfilling: listen to Episode 80! -rc


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