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I am a software engineer, database developer, web developer, social media user, programming geek, avid reader, sports fan, data geek, and statistics geek. I do not care if something is new and shiny. I want to know if it works, if it is better than what I use now, and whether it makes my job or my life easier. I am also the author of and Founder of, a social media monitoring and tracking tool. Robert is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 109 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

Failures Are Really Mini Successes

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I tend to talk about failure a bit on this blog. Failure is a good topic for discussion, whether it is project failure or failures by people. Why is it such a good topic to talk about? Because people fail every day and so do companies. However, in our world, people like to talk about success, especially monstrous success even though a very small fraction of people will ever achieve it. I like to talk about failure because everyone knows what it feels like in some way, and there are not a lot of people talking about it.

Recently, there was an excellent thread about failure on a mailing list that was start by Wil Reynolds and his post about applauding failure. The basic idea is that people are constantly talking about big successes, but little is said about failure. Given that I agree, it should be no surprise that I liked the post, but there was one section that was really memorable:

The other thing I notice is that most entrepreneurs are the best exaggerators and liars out there. You think they are successful, but they aren’t. Closing a round of funding is not success, its a lifeline. Selling the business and taking care of yourself and the people who helped build it is, not ruining your family to win in business is success, along with a slew of other things…

I highly recommend you read the rest of his post as well. The key point here is that success in business is only a small part of the puzzle. If you sacrificed your health and your personal relationships for that success, did you really succeed? I am sure that some of the huge successes that we read about have come at the expense of something significant like this. So, instead of focusing purely on the drive to succeed, what if we focus on the failures?

In most places, any sort of failure is seen as a very bad thing, almost like a disease that is contagious. Like all people, I fail every day. I try not to dwell on that particular failure except to know why I failed and what I could do differently. Failure sucks, but that does not mean it is not useful. A few months ago, I talked about people failing and why it is not such a bad thing:

Projects and companies fail all of the time. If people stopped at their first major failure, half of the entrepreneurs currently working in Silicon Valley would not be working. So, what did you learn from the failure? Adopt failure as a badge of courage. We all fail during our careers, but it is what we learn from those failures that defines our career.

So, who do you know that has failed recently? What can you learn from them or the decisions that were made?

Why should we focus on failure so much? Because you rarely learn much from other people’s success. Look at some of the major successes in our industry. What can you learn from Microsoft‘s rise to dominance? There are some basic business decisions that are useful, but typically there is not a lot of new advice. Google’s success has even less to offer. Display ads make money, but that is not surprising. Google’s search results were better than existing search engines, but the core ideas behind PageRank cannot be used to build another empire. Facebook is another success that yields little, and they continue to make mistakes in several areas.

One reason people focus on success is to find that recipe or secret 10 steps that will lead them to greatness. This idea is obviously flawed, and even these great successes are littered with failure. Windows did not really dominate until after v3.1. Google may have dominated search results but had to find a way to make money, and they have had plenty of other failures along the way. The failures can give you knowledge of what not to do, and through that process you can find what you need to be successful. That really makes each failure a mini-success.

Thomas Edison is widely quoted when it comes to failure, mainly because he has some excellent quotes. There are two that I wanted to leave you with. The first is a way to overcome failure:

I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.

The second quote is more related to narrowing your search for success:

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

So, go forth and fail!

Published at DZone with permission of Robert Diana, author and DZone MVB. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)


Lieven Doclo replied on Mon, 2011/01/31 - 11:05am

Ever seen "Meet The Robinsons?". It contains my favorite quote ever: "Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious… And curiosity keeps leading us down new paths." -- Walt Disney From failing you learn, from success not so much. Unfortunately, in most companies failure isn't something that's seen as a learning tool but as a measure of incompetence or as a sign that there is a problem. Failure should be accepted, learnt from and be used as an incentive to move forward (and yes, perhaps fail once again).

Nicolas Frankel replied on Mon, 2011/01/31 - 11:36am

"We learn little from victory, much from defeat." - Japanese saying

Erin Garlock replied on Mon, 2011/01/31 - 5:08pm

I'd like to offer an alternate view on this.  Unlike some certain television shows where the main character is great at everything, all the time, there are areas we are good at and others not so much.  Knowing when a failure is simply a failure, and knowing when it is a result of something fundamentally flawed is key.  Also, knowing where your strengths are, and knowing how you can use them to overcome weakness has been vital to companies and individuals throughout history.  

The current common mindset however seems to be, improve on your weaknesses, sometimes at the expense of everything else.  However, this isn't what we see from any of the quotes people have posted here, contrary to what seems to be on the surface of these quotes.

Disney : They knew their business, they acknowledged failures (and hopefully examined them) and spent the rest of their time moving forward.

Edison : Knew his science well enough, but he didn't dwell on why why he kept failing, he knew he had to keep moving forward trying new things (the inventive process)

Japanese Saying :  This is a bit more subtle, but how much did Edison learn when he actually succeeded in the last steps of making the light bulb?  War involves strategy, learning that some idea was fatal is important, but how much more time is spent learning how to improve what you already know?

The same line of reasoning is seen is sports as well.  Got a great drive, a decent short game, and a not so good putt?  Bring the not so good (fundamentally flawed) putt up to decent and then focus on the drive (Strength).  Sound familiar?  Tiger Woods.

Check out the book, "Now, Discover Your Strengths" by Marcus Buckingham & Donald O. Clifton

Charlie Mordant replied on Tue, 2011/02/01 - 6:42am

"That which does not kill us makes us stronger." Nietzsche

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