Failing as Success

This is another thought-provoking one from Real Simple.
This is another thought-provoking gem from Real Simple. And Gretchen Rubin, of course.

I smiled as I considered this. It seems as if so many people in our culture are allergic to failure, and I have certainly been one of that group in the past. It is as if to say ‘anything that does not measure up to this line means you’re a failure as a human being – just to a human being who has failed to get to the line.’

On the flip side, I have a friend and mentor who points out that you can’t really succeed until you’ve failed spectacularly three times.

And then I think of Taleb, who wrote the fabulous Antifragile (haven’t heard of it? GO READ IT. No, really, it’s time. I’ll be reviewing it at some point) and what he says about the difference between something – a person, a career, an entire ecosystem – that benefits from shocks and craziness (antifragile), and the things that are quite fragile indeed. He points out that with the antifragile, there are always tiny failures that get tweaked and solved along the line. Failure, in this system, is a really great thing, because the failures are tiny and easily resolved. And if you don’t get tiny failures in this system, something is wrong – either you’re not doing anything at all, or the failures are hiding under the carpet where they are growing teeth and claws.

Which brings me to the other way of being, fragility. To be fragile, in reference to failure, is to seem fine for a long time while failure is bubbling in the background, ready to cover you in boiling oil when the time is ripe. Or, if you prefer, jump out from under the carpet and devour you.

An example of the former, antifragile, might be… Google. Programming. Taxi drivers, as a profession. Consultants. People who have immediate feedback on what works and what doesn’t and who can make immediate change.

An example of the fragile, he gives some good examples – the banking system for one. Education. Religion. Slow to change, slow to adapt and while some may see that whatever is going on isn’t going to be good in the long term, the visionaries often aren’t in control, and those in control often aren’t visionaries – or at least not quite the kind you want.


  1. As for the first part of your post I think that the line of thinking you presented – “anything that does not measure up to this line means you’re a failure as a human being – just to a human being who has failed to get to the line.” – is a very “latin”/mediterranean way of thinking. I say this in the sense of mixing the human, personal side with the professional/performative side, which can (of course) be very different. Although not entirely dissociated, I find quite of an over-reaction to focus too much on the contact point of these sides (with serious psychological repercussions). So, yes, I think your friend is right… but not just 3 times. You really have to fail seriously in order to seriously make some breakthrough. When you fail fhat means you tried, and you tried because you had a vision, and now you know that path isn’t the way to go. Even in darkness, you cannot stop progress.

    • Thanks, Hélio! It’s pretty clear to me that ideas of success and ideas of failure are really value laden for us, and not always in helpful ways – the success or failure of a project I do, a job I have, a marriage I’m a part of always seem to want to reflect directly on me – whether I am a failure, or I am a success. It was a shock for the first time to meet someone in my own field who viewed failure as part of the process of success, and not a desolate endpoint all of its own. It was a refreshing and life-giving shock. It was also personally quite pleasant (as someone who saw herself as failing at least three times) to realize that that was really just the beginning and that the fun was about to begin. Which it has. Perhaps you’re right – perhaps the number of times truly doesn’t count. I do like shaking up the traditionally accepted sense of what failure means, however. That, perhaps, I even love.

      • Was it such a shock? Try to recall the moment and the feeling… I bet you were feeling something much different from a shock. ;)
        Regarding the ‘number’ of times: when I said the number doesn’t count, technically it doesn’t… but… like 12 (widely used in the Bible), number 3 has very peculiar energies surrounding it (like each algarism and master numbers). Number 3 is a catalysis number: it accelerates what is supposed to happen. In Portuguese we have several sayings involving the number 3 and all of them point to the divinity of the number. To me it’s just the energetic point when things start to clear up or going into cruise speed. Change comes only at 5 ;) But, hey, these are all sides/faces of the same thing. And you know what that is… :D

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