How We’ve Destroyed the Concept of Failure

I’m a big fan of learning from failures. When I look back at my life, I see that some of my greatest growth has resulted from failures that I’ve had.

But I’m frustrated by the way that failure has been glorified lately.

It’s healthy to accept that failures will happen, and to learn from those experiences. It’s equally important not to fear failure.

But over and over, I hear self-help “gurus” explaining why we need to “fail fast” or why “failure is good.” We talk like failure is a necessary step before you can succeed at something.

Even Business Insider recently jumped on the bandwagon after Nick Foles made some comments about his past failures during his press conference after the Super Bowl.

And personally, I don’t buy it.


I’ve certainly had my share of failures, and I like to think that I’ve turned several of the obstacles in my life into my own competitive advantages, but failure is never the goal. And it’s also far from a prerequisite for success.

You hear the argument that we learn more from failure than we do from winning. And in some ways that often turns out to be true.

But the fact that you lost in the first place really has very little to do with how much you can learn from a experience.

Going back to Super Bowl LII, do the Patriots really have more to learn from that game than the Eagles, just because they lost?

Of course not.

Those were two very evenly matched teams that played almost equally good games. If it weren’t for Brandon Graham coming around the end and stripping Tom Brady at just the right time, or even if one of the Patriot receivers could’ve come down with the Hail Mary at the end of the game, the narrative would be completely different.

We wouldn’t be talking about how clutch the Eagles defense is, or how foolish it seems that Bill Bellicheck didn’t play Malcolm Butler.

We’d be saying how incredible Tom Brady was. The story would be about how there was never a doubt that the Patriots would pull it out in the end, and that the Eagles just didn’t have what it took. We’d talk about how unbeatable the Patriots dynasty is.

But as soon as the game ends and one team is crowned the winner, we forget about the uncertainty, and even the luck, that went into the end result.

All we see is black and white. We see a winner and a loser.

I understand why we do this. As humans, we like to paint a narrative to explain why things happen.

Looking at various points through the game retroactively, it’s easy to point out the things that the Patriots could’ve done better. And the Patriots should, and likely will, learn from these scenarios.

But the thing we miss is that those learning experiences would’ve been almost exactly the same even if the Patriots had pulled off the victory in the last few minutes.

So to say that the Patriots will benefit from the fact that they lost is largely inaccurate.

Besides some extra bad blood, and possibly motivation, that they’ll have going forward now, they shouldn’t be any better off because they lost that game.

If anything, the other baggage that comes with the loss will likely do more harm than good.

But we rarely think like this.

We celebrate when we win, and we look for learning opportunities when we lose.

But teams like the Patriots learn just as much from victories as they do from failure. And that’s part of what keeps them at the top of the league year after year.


As you can imagine, this idea applies well beyond the sports world.

We obsess over a problem that we get wrong on an exam, but we don’t pay nearly as much attention when we happen to guess right and blindly get a question right.

We follow-up with angry customers to figure out what went wrong, but we don’t think twice about asking our happy customers what went right.

Just because you lose doesn’t mean that you did everything wrong, just like you don’t necessarily have to play your best game to win.

The value of failure rarely actually has anything to do with the end result of the contest.

The value comes from reflection.

The best students review every problem when they get a test back, even if they got the problems right.

The best salespeople are just as relentless in critiquing and learning from their performance when they close the deal as they are when it slips away.

So yes, I agree with the deeper meaning behind the failure praise. We need to be willing to put ourselves out there without fear of failure, and we need to learn from our mistakes when we do fail.

But I don’t agree with the delivery.

Failure is never the goal, and there’s no reason why you need to fail before you can succeed.


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