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Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win

Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win

[Ed’s note: This piece is excerpted from Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win by Ryan Babineaux, PhD., and John Krumboltz, PhD., with the permission of Tarcher/Penguin. Copyright 2013 Ryan Babineaux, PhD., and John Krumboltz, PhD]

In the book Art and Fear, the artists Ted Orland and David Waylon share a story about a ceramics teacher who tried an experiment with his class.

The teacher divided the students into two groups. Those sitting on the left side of the studio were to be graded solely on the quantity of their work, while those on the right, solely on the quality. The instructor informed the students in the quantity group that a simple rule would be applied to evaluate their grades: those who produced fifty pounds of pots would get an A, those who produced forty pounds a B, and so on.

For the quality group, the instructor told the students that he would assign a course grade based on the single best piece produced over the duration of the course. So if a student created a first-rate pot on day one of the course and did nothing else for the term, he would still get an A.

When the end of the quarter arrived and it came to grading time, the instructor made an interesting discovery: the students who created the best work, as judged by technical and artistic sophistication, were the quantity group. While they were busy producing pot after pot, they were experimenting, becoming more adept at working with the clay, and learning from the mistakes on each progressive piece.

In contrast, the students in the quality group carefully planned out each pot and tried to produce refined, flawless work, and so they only worked on a few pieces over the length of the course. Because of their limited practice, they showed little improvement.

We like this story because it points out an important principle: successful people take action as quickly as possible, even though they may perform badly.

Instead of trying to avoid making mistakes and failing, they actively seek opportunities where they can face the limits of their skills and knowledge so that they can learn quickly. They understand that feeling afraid or underprepared is a sign of being in the space for optimal growth and is all the more reason to press ahead. In contrast, when unsuccessful people feel unprepared or afraid, they interpret it as a sign that it is time to stop, readdress their plans, question their motives, or spend more time preparing and planning.

Let us ask you some questions: When was the last time you accomplished something that you are really proud of? How did you feel in the time before you reached this accomplishment? Was it comfortable? Easy? Did you have to do things that pushed you beyond your abilities? Did you make mistakes and mess up? If you are like most people, you will probably find that the times in your life when you grew and accomplished the most are also the times when you made the most mistakes and blunders and had to overcome the greatest obstacles.

Do It Badly, as Fast as You Can

When you encounter accomplishments of successful people—whether an enthralling stage performance, a beautiful work of art, an innovative business, or an ingenious invention—it can be easy to think that these accomplishments are the result of unusual brilliance and came into being perfectly formed.

But the truth is that most significant accomplishments arise out of hundreds of mistakes and failures. For example, a seasoned comedian, such as Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock, tries thousands of hastily conceived joke ideas, most of which flop, in small clubs and venues. Only a few performance ideas, after many revisions and improvements, make their way into the polished shows presented to national audiences.

Howard Schultz’s creation of Starbucks provides a good example of how success arises from many mistakes.

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