The Science of Failure: Why Highly Successful People Crave Mistakes

Mar 6, 2014 6 min readResources
“I’m delighted to admit that I’ve failed at more challenges than anyone I know.” — Scott Adams

A friend told me recently about a colleague who is entirely open to feedback. When she’s told that she did something wrong, my friend said, she just starts over. She doesn’t take feedback personally, and she doesn’t feel upset about getting anything wrong.

When I heard that story, I thought to myself, “I wish I took feedback that well.” I can’t imagine anything better than an attitude like that, especially when I’m trying to learn new things.

I’m not at that point yet, but I know a lot of successful people are. I love to learn from the advice of others, so I thought I’d take a look at what some successful people say about failure and why they seek it out.

The science of failure: We can’t admit we’re wrong

It always helps to add some context about the subconscious biases we have in our heads before exploring a topic, I think. I looked into some of the research on success and failure, and how we react to them to see what I could learn. These are three of the most interesting points I discovered (they are all, of course, subconscious – so we do them all the time without realizing):

We don’t take credit for our failures

We tend to take credit for our successes, attributing them to internal factors such as how much effort we put in, the skills we have or our past experience. Failure, on the other hand, is something we don’t like to admit to. Research has shown that we are more likely to blame failure on external factors like luck or the difficulty of the task.

Failure makes us less generous

After succeeding at a task, the positive reinforcement makes us more likely to be more generous and helpful to others. If we fail at a task first, however, we’re less likely to want to help others, and less generous with our time and money.

We literally can’t admit that we’re wrong

In Being Wrong, author Kathryn Schulz explains the problem of error blindness:

“… the sentence ‘I am wrong’ describes a logical impossibility. As soon as we know that we are wrong, we aren’t wrong anymore, since to recognize a belief as false is to stop believing it. Thus we can only say ‘I was wrong.'”

So even for those of us who try hard to admit our mistakes, it’s almost impossible for us to do so, at least in the present:

“… we can be wrong, or we can know it, but we can’t do both at the same time.”

What successful people say about failure

Luckily there are successful people around who are willing to publicly share their failures and why they consistently seek to make more mistakes.


Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong

“As with dying, we recognize erring as something that happens to everyone, without feeling that it is either plausible or desirable that it will happen to us.” —Kathryn Schulz

Kathryn Schulz is a great person to start with. She’s written a whole book about being wrong, and advocates for us all to realize how prone we are to making mistakes and learn how to learn from them:

“Because we don’t experience, remember, track, or retain mistakes as a feature of our inner landscape, wrongness always seems to come at us from left field.”

Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx

In this CNBC interview, Sara Blakely explains how a history of being comfortable with failure led her to build a business from scratch even though she had no experience.

“My dad growing up encouraged me and my brother to fail… It’s really allowed me to be much freer in trying things and spreading my wings in life.”

In the video, Sara shares the story of how her dad would ask her each day, “What have you failed at today?” encouraging her to try new things and not be afraid of failure.


Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert

Scott Adams has an amazingly positive view of failure. In a Wall Street Journal article, he shared some of his past failures and how much he learned from each one.

“If I find a cow turd on my front steps, I’m not satisfied knowing that I’ll be mentally prepared to find some future cow turd. I want to shovel that turd onto my garden and hope the cow returns every week so I never have to buy fertilizer again. Failure is a resource that can be managed.”

Scott’s view of failure is that we should not only not shy away from it, but by seeking it out we’ll be more likely to find success:

“The universe has plenty of luck to go around; you just need to keep your hand raised until it’s your turn. It helps to see failure as a road and not a wall.”

Learning from your mistakes

I can’t tell you to think different about failure. You can’t even tell yourself that, really. Thinking differently about something takes time and effort, and often requires compounding evidence.

One thing I can suggest is working on that compounding evidence to help convince yourself that failure isn’t so bad after all. Here are two ways to get started:

1. Start a journal

Start documenting all of your mistakes. Keep track of where these are happening: at work, at home, with friends. Did you ignore your intuition and go with a safe option, only to regret it later? Or did you take a risk that didn’t pan out?

Keep a detailed account of what happened so you can start to see patterns in where you’re making mistakes and which ones you’re repeating too often.

2. Review past mistakes

At some point, sit down and look over the record you’ve been keeping of the mistakes you’ve made. Take note of the patterns you can see and what you think you could do to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Even before you’ve had time to start a journal of mistakes you can learn from, I bet you can think of a bunch you’ve made in the past (I know I can). Try looking at past failures or mistakes and working out what you learned from them. How did those failures help you get to where you are now? How did those mistakes help you learn?

Faced with a true list of your past mistakes and how they’ve helped you, rather than hindered your progress, you may find your opinion of failure changing slowly.

3. View decisions as experiments

Recognising our mistakes is almost impossible, according to Kathryn Schulz. Since it’s so common for us to brush aside or forget our failures, a better way to learn from when we go wrong might be this approach from Zen Habits author, Leo Babauta:

“See decisions not as final choices, but experiments.

The anxiety (and paralysis) comes when people are worried about making the perfect choice. And worried about making the wrong choice. Those are two outcomes that aren’t necessary to make a decision, because if we conduct an experiment, we’re just trying to see what happens.”

Leo’s idea is to conduct experiments to help us make the best choices we can. For instance, he suggests trying to sell cupcakes to friends and family to test whether setting up a cupcake business is right for you. Or taking a ballet class to test whether ballet is something you’d enjoy learning.

It’s all about testing, rather than “making decisions.” Sounds less scary, right?

“When you’re just conducting experiments, there’s no failure. Any result is learning. If there’s no failure, you don’t have to worry.”

P.S. If you liked this post, you might also like 10 Years of Silence: How Long it Took Mozart, Picasso and Kobe Bryant to be Successful and The First Version of Google, Facebook, YouTube and More (and What They Can Teach us About Starting Small).

Image credits: eLKayPics, International Reporting Project, Forbes, Wall Street Journal

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