Why Embracing Failure And Uncertainty Is The Better Option

(Embracing Failure As An Intrinsic Part Of Science – Dr Jon Tennant)


We Celebrate Success And Ignore Failure


Most motivational speeches have an anecdote that features how someone overcame tremendous odds and yet came home a winner.

The personal development and self-help world is steeped in case studies and analysis of success.

Numerous studies have been undertaken on successful people to understand what it was that they did to become so successful, how they did it and when they did it - and we are led to believe that we too can achieve comparable success if we replicate this.

We are told by the self-help gurus:

“You can be anything you want to be, if you put your mind to it.”

“Your thoughts have resonance and if you think enough positive thoughts for long enough, they will manifest.


But that is just not true.

This focus on success is very odd given that:

Success is the exception rather than the rule

Every scientific discovery, every new invention, every great innovation, every new idea of substance is the product of innumerable failures.

Most people do not realise all of their dreams. Most of the time, most of us fail. Hard work, skill, focus and persistence are not enough without the randomness of chance and the alignment of many factors, principally being in the right place with the right offering at the right time in the right environment.

For every successful business person there so many more who have failed - over 95% of new businesses fail.

Many people do not find the life-partner of their dreams.

Most of the time, your plans do not work out as you wanted them to.

Failure is the norm

Life itself is driven by failure. Evolution is driven by failure; approximately 99% of species that ever existed did not adapt and did not survive. The surviving 1% is the exception and not the rule. The exception adapted and survived… until they died.

In the philosophical and spiritual world impermanence is recognised as the true nature of things celebrated in the homily “this too will pass”.

Nothing lasts, ultimately everything fails. It is a fundamental truism of most major faith traditions that death is the portal to new life, whether in this world or the next.

So in the face of this crushing reality, isn’t it odd that we bury failure and deny its existence by refusing to talk about it, rather than being inquisitive and seeking to learn from it?

“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.” (Shane Parrish – Turning Towards Failure)




Understanding Our Forgotten Failures


“… 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.”
(Oliver Burkeman – “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking”) )


Here are some pointers to help you understand:




    # Winners are outliers – they do not represent the common experience and they do not tell the whole story

    # Survivorship bias – a cognitive distortion that skews your understanding when you wrongly assume that success tells you all you need to know and thus you overestimate the real odds of success.

    # Winners are not the norm - failure is the norm and winners are the exception. People like Bill Gates are the outlier, the exception, the anomaly. Modelling yourself on Bill Gates will not make you into a major success.














    # Ignoring the base rate data - that is, the odds of success (or failure) based on prior probabilities. In practise this means ignoring the percentage of a population or universe of data which has a particular characteristic. Successful people usually represent a very small subset of all those in their field.

    # Ignoring the base-rate information in the light of personal data - for example 50% of marriages fail but “we are so love it will never happen to us….”














    # Confusing co-incidence and causation - success is often attributed to a correlation or causation that just does not exist.

    # Craving a credible and coherent success story - the successful exceptions feed your need to believe that if they can do it so can you.

    # Inflated perception of your chances of success - you need to be cautious of advice from the successful and deeply realistic with your understanding of reality.

    # Learn from the failures and the successes - learning from the successful – teaches you far less than learning from the failures. The wisest strategy is to learn from both successes and failures.














    # Dig deep in your search for true understanding of success and failure - history is written by the winners, the same applies to the recorded knowledge of success. Often the failures end up ignored and voiceless, so what you read and what you hear is a distortion of what really happened.

    # Talk to those at the coal-face or the front line - the unsung people under-recognised people who are directly involved in whatever field you aim to succeed in can tell you so much more what's really involved. Seek them out, be humble, ask questions, listen and learn.






How To Embrace Uncertainty


(1) The Stoic practise of "The Pre-Meditation Of Evils" - is a thought exercise of imagining things that could go wrong or be taken away from you so that you are prepared for the worst and not taken by surprise.

"What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise.

Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.”
— Seneca


(2) The Stockdale Paradox - balancing realism and optimism in a dire situation is a key to survival and success.

What the Stockdale Paradox means is that in times of failure and prolonged and seemingly never-ending hardship, set-backs, suffering and distress we need to maintain optimism that we will survive and pull through, and yet at the same time balance that with a total realism and practicality about the harsh present realities.

Paraphrased to its core:

Hope for the best, but acknowledge and prepare for the worst


(3) Manage Your Relationship With Failure - and learn how to overcome your fear of it. The notion that you might fail can really slow you down.

But it’s not the failure itself that’s the problem. The problem is your relationship with failure.

Don’t pursue your goals as if you know you can’t fail.

Of course you can fail.

But don’t make such a big deal out of failure!




Return to: Techniques For Stress Management


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