“We hold this truth to be self-evident:” People fail literally all the time. In the span of me writing that relatively short sentence, billions of people around the world failed at something. Failure has long been a major topic on this here blog, so much so that I believe it’s in my blog description at the top of the page. It all started when I realized (somewhat later into a professional career) that managers are terrible at dealing with failure, and then over time it evolved into different things like Hooters waitresses (ha!) and questioning success vs. questioning failure, then once I found a cool story about a company that makes animal feed and outperforms Apple’s stock (really!) and that was all tied to notions of bouncing back from failure. Then, somewhere along the line of blogging a bunch about failure, I myself got divorced, which ’tis a form of failure, and so I wrote about that a couple of times, with this post probably being the most notable.

Long story short: I consider failure a lot, so when I came across a new article on Northwestern’s website, I was fascinated. It’s called “Why do some people succeed after failing, while others keep floundering?” Honestly seems like a central question of life to me, although potentially an under-discussed one.

So what does the research say?

In this specific case, the research doesn’t say anything super amazing in terms of new knowledge, but the set-up was interesting:

They turned to three massive data sets, each containing information about very distinct types of failure and success: 776,721 grant applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) between 1985 and 2015; the National Venture Capital Association’s database of all 58,111 startups to receive venture-capital funding from 1970 to 2016; and the Global Terrorism Database, which includes 170,350 attacks between 1970 and 2016.

These sources allowed the researchers to track groups and individuals as they made repeated attempts over time to achieve a goal: obtain grant funding, lead their company to get acquired at high values or achieve an IPO, or, in the case of terrorist organizations, execute an attack with at least one fatality — a grim measure of success, to be sure.

Yea, pretty grim for sure. But different, so that’s cool.

Basically what happened with the data was this: let’s say you try to get funding, or try to blow up a building, 10 times. You are successful on the 10th. Well, theoretically on the 9th attempt each time, you should be closer than ever before — because we often think about learning, success, and failure as a steady growth process. So your first attempt is a mess, the second is a bit better, the third better than that, etc.

But, that didn’t happen with the data. Some people were still massively failing on their 8th, 9th attempts. That shouldn’t be the case, right?

Here’s essentially what was happening:

Importantly, even if an attempt fails overall, some of its components may still have been good. When mounting a new attempt, an individual has to choose, for each component, whether to go back to the drawing board or to improve upon a version from a prior (failed) attempt.

At one extreme, the very worst learners incorporate zero information from their previous tries, starting from scratch on every component every time. At the other extreme are perfect learners, who consider all of their past failures with each fresh attempt. Most people are somewhere between these two extremes.

Reminded me a little bit of “latitude of acceptance.”

So what would be the takeaway?

When you fail, don’t go back to the drawing board. It’s not that the entire thing you just did was a failure. It’s that when all the components were evaluated, someone else “won” — got money, got laid, torched a cruise ship, whatever — for any number of reasons. Either it was political, it was subjective, or their mix of presentation and components was better. But your whole thing wasn’t a turd. Just maybe 2–3 parts of it.

So keep a baseline and work on those 2–3 parts. You’ll get there. What’s that Edison quote? People give up because they don’t realize how close they are to success, no?

Most of this stuff, ultimately, is about persistence above anything else.

Any personal examples?

Sure, I have dozens. I can tell you at the end of 2015, I got piped (fired) from one job, and it was the holidays and I didn’t have much set up really, and that was a major moment of failure. So I had to think about “What am I good at?” and “What could drive income for me?” instead of just restarting and becoming a nurse or some such. I followed the model and built an OK freelance career; actually, in 2016, I was pretty successful.

In late 2017, I was divorced and having fiscal struggles again … and I had to do the same thing. It’s not a whole-scale reinvention but it’s about kicking tires, being persistent, getting lucky, and finding avenues.

I forget the stats on second marriages; I’ve looked it up before but I’m too lazy to right now. I think something like 68% of people gets remarried within four years. I was in that boat. And that’s another example where it’s like, look, I still have value, I could be a good partner to someone else, but I need to tweak a few things. Now, I’m still in the process of doing some of that, because that’s what human existence is (a work in progress), but that was my thinking post-divorce.

So don’t wholly reinvent after a failure. Rather, keep a baseline and tweak what needs tweaking. Learn as you go, and you’ll set yourself up for success.

Wouldn’t this speak to the power of feedback?

In life? Yes. Get it from friends, family, and loved ones.

At work? No, not really. Feedback at work is a joke, because it’s usually highly-subjective, rushed in delivery, and not specific enough to matter. “Good project, Bob!” teaches you nothing about what should happen next, and that’s the upper limit you will get from most managers. Here’s everything I’ve ever written about feedback. It might be a bigger list than failure.

What would you say about translating failure into success?