It is our natural tendency to want to share our successes and hide our failures. In many ways, this is a confirmation bias towards conformity. As a society we celebrate success, there is a clear advantage to portraying oneself in the most successful light. The only problem with this is that we almost always learn more from the failures (both individually and as a collective). Every airplane crash contributes to the improvement of the safety of the overall aviation industry.
Here is a beautiful failure from my work to improve the efficiency of solar cells.
One classic example of celebrating failure is the Thomas Edison (mis)quote: “I have not failed, not once. I’ve discovered ten thousand ways that don’t work.” (Was he working on light bulbs or batteries? There is some interesting sleuthing around this (mis)quote at quoteinvestigator.com.) Regardless of the details, the moral of the story is: through much tinkering and failure, he finally succeeded in inventing something amazing.
In Edison’s day, the activation barrier to publication was very high (we didn’t even have light bulbs yet ;). It made perfect sense to keep the knowledge of what doesn’t work inside of the lab. The potential usefulness of sharing this information was severely outweighed by the cost of documenting and communicating it. For now, we can set aside the detail that Edison was running a commercial laboratory – even if his intention was to give the idea away for free, it would still have probably made more sense for him to only share his successes, given the work involved in disseminating the failed results in any useful form. Most importantly, we only know this story because he succeeded in the end.
One key difference between Edison’s time and today is that there are now ubiquitous and inexpensive channels through which we can share our failures (and successes) instantaneously with the entire world. Whether it is a scientific result on arXiv, an issue or pull request on GitHub, or an #epicfail tweet - we now have the opportunity to crowdsource Edison’s ten thousand iterations. There are many examples of areas where this collective ‘failure’ results in accelerated success. Linus’s Law is one: “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. There is now clearly a huge advantage to releasing early, often, and openly - the benefits of many eyeballs vastly outweigh the costs of communication for many types of projects.
This shift in the ‘activation barrier to sharing’ means that it is easy to disseminate stories of failure. As an extreme example: 10,000 people can now each fail to make an awesome invention once, and the 10,001st succeed, with each incremental person making sure to try something new. Without the communication, it is very likely that each of these researchers will unknowingly relive a subset of the same failed attempts. This example allows us to see that even a shared failure represents an important contribution to the eventual success of the awesome invention. In other words: without sharing, our time is wasted unless we succeed. With sharing, our effort is contributing to the collective success, regardless of our individual outcome. Where not to look is very valuable information.
Time for change! If it is so easy to share our failures, why are so few people doing it? Habit? Ego? Shame? Selfishness? Apathy? I don’t know, but here are a handful of ways that sharing your failures can directly benefit you (even if you don’t buy into the whole collective success bit):
- Critical feedback is the only mechanism for improvement. Seek it out.
- Vulnerability is engaging. Build a real connection by learning out loud.
- Failure is frustrating! Sometimes, you just need to rant.
If we want to accelerate success, we need to allow others to learn from our failures. Maybe our failure is really a stepping-stone to an even more awesome invention than we could have imagined. I owe my current career to lab accidents and ‘failed’ experiments. I wrote this article mostly to motivate myself to share some of my own stories of failure and rejection…stay tuned. For now, please post your failures! I’m curious to learn more about what not to do.