The importance of failure - for effective learning, growth mindset, and quality through experimentation.
I was asked by Lakshmi Pratury of TED India - (now the InK Conference) - to do a talk about failure. She had recently moved from California to India, and felt that people in Asia are really averse to making any mistakes, because the culture there brands you as a failure if you make a mistake. So I put together this talk, sharing what I had learned from some books and experience, on the subject of mistakes, deliberate practice, experimentation, and failure.
I did it live at the INK Conference in India, but there was a major hardware failure halfway through. It made for a great impromptu joke about failure, but a bad recording. So this is my “studio” version:
Hi, this is Derek Sivers from sive.rs, and this is “Why You Need to Fail.”
I’m often invited to speak at conferences full of famous, successful people. They’re all leaders of some sort. People look up to them. They’re acclaimed and accomplished. They have a great reputation. They’re struggling years of failure are behind them. And that’s the problem.
When you’re green, you grow. When you’re ripe, you rot.
If you’re not failing, you’re not learning.
Let’s take a lesson from this, and talk about three big reasons why you need to fail.
First, if you’re not failing, you’re not learning.
The way you build muscle in a gym is you do something a little out of your capability so that the tiny little muscle fibers actually tear. Then as they repair themselves, they rebuild a little stronger and a little bigger to adapt. That’s why they say, “No pain, no gain,” and it’s the same with the brain.
Look at these two sets of words for a few seconds. The second set is intentionally missing a letter in each word. Take ten seconds to read both sides, OK?
Tests show that when quizzed afterwards, people remembered three times as many words from the second column - the one that was missing letters. It’s like when you saw the words with the blank spaces, you struggled with it for just a second then you figured it out. But that one second of struggle made all the difference. To learn something effectively, you must make mistakes and pay attention to those mistakes.
Let’s look at a similar test. Everyone was given a paper with some facts. Group A studied the paper for four separate sessions. Group B studied only once, but then was tested three times and shown their mistakes after each test. A week later, both groups were brought back and tested again. Group B scored 50% higher than Group A. That means that they had studied one fourth as much, but learned far more.
Making mistakes and being in over your head and failing is proven to teach better than lots of advanced preparation. This is not just for memorizing, but for anything. Practicing music, for example, I went to Berklee College of Music, and our music teacher taught us that if what we’re doing in the practice room sounds good, then it’s not practice. Now I get what he meant.
Some students would just play what they know start to finish. If I was in the practice room, sometimes I could hear the student in the next room just playing everything start to finish perfectly. [Singing perfectly].
But then one time, I was in the practice room next to one of the best musicians in school. I was surprised to hear that everything coming out of his practice room just sounded like short phrases making lots of mistakes each time. [Singing with mistakes]. Lots of mistakes focusing on tiny little phrases.
Doing what you know is fun, but it doesn’t improve you. The most effective way to improve at anything is to find what you’re not good at. Find the painful, the difficult activities that will make you better, then do those things over and over again until you’ve got it.
If you’re interested in this, there are two great books about it. The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin.
Michael Jordan, basketball legend, your turn. “I missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed.” (Quote by Michael Jordan.)
Reason number one why you need to fail is because if you’re not failing, you’re not learning. But it would be a shame for you to think these are just little academic experiments. Like, “OK, I’ll remember that next time I need to memorize word pairs.” So instead try to extrapolate this to real life. Deliberate practice to improve skill is a fact. It’s a neurological reality. Knowing that, how would you apply this to your life? If you just keep doing what you’re good at, you’re coasting, you’ve plateaued. You need to make a real effort to fail more.
But a voice inside you is probably saying, “Failure is not an option. You’re the top in your field. You can’t throw away a career of hard work. You have a reputation to protect. You have an image to uphold. You have an impeccable track record. People would lose respect for you.”
Well, let’s look at a very big deal: the fixed mindset versus growth mindset.
People with a fixed mindset think that talent comes from an ingrained level of ability. They think “I’m good at this” or “I’m not good at this.” They see it as fixed that you either are or you aren’t. Some people are born artists. Some people are born leaders. Some people are just good with numbers and some aren’t.
People with a growth mindset think that with hard work, anyone can master anything. They think “I got it because I worked hard at it”. They see the starting point is moot. It doesn’t matter if someone took to a skill a little more naturally at a young age. Absolutely anyone can catch up and surpass the so-called naturals.
Two big reasons why this matters. Number one, the fixed mindset hurts you.
There was a two-part test given to a bunch of students. The first part was intentionally easy and the second part was impossibly hard. So it created a situation of initial encouragement, then certain failure. After each person failed the test, they were asked what they planned to do before the next test.
Those with the growth mindset said they would study harder for the next test.
Those with a fixed mindset said they would study less for the next test. After all, this is something they’re obviously just not good at, so why waste their time?
Reason number two why this matters – parents pay attention here – is where this mindset comes from. If a child is told well-meaning things like “you’re so smart”, “you’re a brilliant child”, “you’re so great at this”, “you have always been a math whiz,” then it forms the fixed mindset view of the world.
But instead of praising the person, if they’re praised on their effort, like telling them, “You must have worked really hard” or “Let’s look at how do we improve that,” then that forms a growth mindset view of the world.
So what’s fascinating is that it can be changed in an instant. So remember this two-part test. It starts very easy and gets impossibly hard. They did an experiment to see how a simple six-word comment would affect their score. If somebody was to take this test twice, a six-word comment was given to them after the first time.
Randomly, half were praised for their effort. They were told, “You must have worked really hard.” The other half was praised for their intelligence. “You must be smart at this.”
That was it. Just a six-word comment after the first test before the second.
Those that were praised for their effort improved their initial score by 30% when taking it the next time. But those that were praised for their intelligence had their score declined by 20% in the second test. All because of six short words.
To me, this is a huge point. People with a fixed mindset who think, “I’m good at this. I’m just good at this.” They collapse in the face of failure.
If you’re interested in this, please read Carol Dweck’s great book called Mindset and Josh Waitzkin’s book called The Art of Learning.
Why is this so important for my successful audiences? It’s because they’re constantly being praised for being brilliant. Once somebody is successful, everyone starts to tell them, “Oh, you’re a genius filmmaker” or “You’re a natural artist.” Even if you didn’t used to believe that stuff, it’s hard not to when you’re being praised every day. No wonder they don’t want to fail. It would threaten not just their self-image, but the fixed perception of their fans. People like to think of their heroes as geniuses and infallible.
Speaking of, let’s watch Picasso paint. This is a documentary that was made by a friend of his that got to capture his process while he was painting. He was in the studio with Picasso capturing the moment after every major change to the photo. This is a bullfighter. Look at the legs on the bullfighter on the left side, one leg down, one leg up. Now, the top leg just went up. He’s going to paint over that with the cape. Paint the cape red. Hide all the evidence that it used to have both legs going down. Now, on the right hand side, look at his two hands. The one hand on the sword is open and the hand facing forward is closed. Changes his mind, the hand on the sword closes the hand facing forward opens. Now, watch the legs in green. He’s going to change his mind. The top leg is going to go down. Oh, actually, I love this. The bull’s head. And he’s looking at this going, “Hey, man, I’m Picasso. I can do better than that.” So, okay, now look at the legs are going down. He’s going to cover that up with the cape.
Now, I think that watching this process and the mistakes is a lot more encouraging than just seeing a finished product. This is why you should never compare your inside to someone else’s outside. We see all the mistakes in ourself, but we only see other’s final product. But if more of us would show the world our mistakes and our sweaty working process, we’d actually be doing everyone a big favor.
The fixed mindset versus growth mindset makes all the difference in the world.
The third reason why you need to fail is for experiments. This is quantity. Here’s what I mean:
In music school, I took singing lessons. I had this great teacher where I would bring in a song and he’d say, “OK, sing it to me the way you wrote it.” I would sing it start to finish. [Singing]
So I’d sing the whole song like that and he’d say, “Alright, now do it up an octave.” I said, “Up an octave ? What do you mean ? I can’t sing that high?” He’d say, “I don’t care. Go do it.” [Singing in a high-pitched voice]
It sounded terrible. But by the end of three minutes of doing that, I’ll admit that I tried some things that I wouldn’t have tried otherwise. It gives you a new perspective on what you’re doing.
Then he’d say, “OK, now do it down an octave.” I said, “But I can’t sing that low.” He’d say, “I don’t care. Try. Go.” [Singing in a low voice]
Then he’d say, “OK, now do it double speed.” Also, I had to focus on my enunciation and phrasing.
Then he’d say, “OK, now do it half speed.” And all of a sudden when you’re singing a song half speed, you have to really focus on where you take your breaths, and you find all these kind of nuances of space between the words and how you can use that.
Then he’d even have me do some other things. “OK, now sing it to me like Tom Waits would. Now, sing it like you’re Mick Jagger. That’s it. Stand up, prance around the room like Mick Jagger. Do it right. Go on.”
So he’d run me through all these experiments and when it was all done, he’d say, “OK, now, how did the first original go again?” And I’ll admit that after trying all these different ways, it made me realize that the first thing I did was just yet another experiment.
It was an awesome reminder that everything we do is just one option. Everything is an experiment.
The question for you is, which one of these versions was a failure? None, obviously, right? It’s a silly question. There is no such thing as failure if everything is just an experiment.
One last story to tie this all together:
A ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. Everyone on the left side only needed to make one pot all semester, and that one pot would be graded on its perfection. Everyone on the right side would be graded only by weight. He said, “I don’t care what you make on the final day, I’m going to bring in my bathroom scale, and we’re just going to weigh it. Over 50 pounds of pots gets you and A. Over 40 pounds gets you a B. Thirty pounds a C, et cetera. I don’t even care what it is. I’m not even going to look at it. Just weigh it. Go.”
At the end of the semester, there was a surprising result. The works of the highest quality when an outside observer was watching at the end of the class were all the ones that were made by the quantity group. Those that were being judged only on weight. It seems that while this quantity group was busy just churning out piles of work and learning from their mistakes. The quality group, the one that was being judged just on one part, had sat there theorizing about perfection and in the end had nothing but grandiose theories and one mediocre part.
We all have these perfectionist tendencies. Making mistakes and failing is a great way to break that paralysis. And in the end, apparently it makes better work anyway.
The three big reasons why you need to fail.
- It’s required for learning.
- It keeps you in the growth mindset.
- It reminds you that everything is just an experiment.
In musical terms, instead of thinking classical music, think jazz , where there’s this great saying, “If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.”
And lastly, it’s a lot more fun.
My name is Derek Sivers. I hope this was enjoyable. Thanks a lot.