Learning by failure

A long time ago I came across a saying which I still like very much

Freedom is not worth having, if it doesn’t include the freedom to make mistakes. (Ghandi)

Isn’t that exactly the opposite to what our kids learn at school? If they don’t know the answer, they get a bad mark. The kids who can answer get the star. At work the core premise is “do it once – do it right”. The same kind of thing.

But don’t we learn by making mistakes? Just today I was reading about the US$320 Million DARPA failure with the hypersonic test plane. Wow, shouldn’t they get that right? Interestingly the official response was “We’ll learn. We’ll try again. That’s what it takes.” Wow! I was stunned – a public statement that didn’t look for excuses but simply stated “we made a mistake”.

It’s actually happening in selected work settings, too. One of our project templates says “This project was a success because we learned, …” Again, a very important step to acknowledge success is linked to failures.

What we shouldn’t forget is that we learn from our mistakes. The kid in school that can’t answer the question may need to change his learning habit. That starts in the classroom  by asking questions. Mindless learning of facts does not lead to understanding of concepts.

Yes, we need to learn some basics like the alphabet or numbers. But the significance of the invention of “0 (zero)” will never come from that. It will only come by putting it into context and understanding the results through questions, experiments and discussions.

There is a nice Youtube videoclip that adds some more context around “Why you need to fail”


Derek Sivers not only says “If you are not failing, you are not learning.” he goes a big step further. If you don’t want to fail, you are not going forward. You are stuck on what you have achieved and probably go backwards.


Set yourself goals that stretch. Set yourself out to do something new. Build a mindset that you can do this.


Then there is a third element called experiments. I first thought, okay, that’s just filling the number of elements to 3 because it looks good and 3 is a magic number. But, I was wrong.

Experimenting is a different dimension to learning. It takes what you good at and stretches the boundaries – your boundaries. Often you think inside the box and take the box walls limits for granted. Just try and go out of your comfort zone. You will fail initially. But the experience can make you stronger. Apply what you have learned to what you are good at and stretch and make it better.


7 comments on “Learning by failure

  1. CiteSimon says:

    I’ve got the failing part down pretty well, it’s getting past the sting to learn anything from it that give me trouble

  2. CiteSimon says:

    So how do you handle it? What is your insight?

  3. Frank G says:

    It’s a balancing act for me. Working in IT means the customer expect an answer that actually works. In 85% of all incidents that is the case. Experiments (or investigations for that matter) are necessary when the standard approach doesn’t cut it. From my experience it is most helpful to let the customer know that you you don’t know and have to test different theories.

    On a personal level I try to fail on a small level, e.g mix a bit of paint and try how that looks before you paint the whole room. Sometimes I’m a bit scared and read about things or ask friends before I set out and try. What helps is setting a goal when you have your first attempt completed.

    And finally, I find it very helpful to talk about it with my wife. I trust her and she won’t laugh about it but keep me honest. She is the one asking me a week later, what happened about that idea? It’s important to get positive nudges. Someone saying “you can’t do that” more likely gives you an excuse to not follow through.

    Hope that helps

  4. CiteSimon says:

    Thanks. This is great advice for avoiding the problem of messing things up. I’ve noticed in life that s**t happens and despite our feelings, it ain’t always a bad thing. When things do go wrong some people get up and get going again while others sit and nurse the sting, becoming risk averse. What I’m looking for is your insights on getting past the sting after the hammer has fallen and into the positive place of learning anything from the experience.

    • Frank G says:

      Thank you. Yes, correct, these are 2 very different things. Once you’ve made a mistake and you’ve been found out you have a choice. You can crawl back into your safe place and forget what you have tried. Or you can be strong and say, okay that didn’t work out, let’s try it in a different way. Fail early, fail often and then get it right. It’s a question of attitude in my opinion. How do you take critique? Are you becoming defensive (and take it personally)? Or do you see the opportunity you’ve just been given? Because somebody pointed out one possible reason you failed. That gives you a leverage to improve quickly. This can be learned. Some simple steps like
      – thank for that point of view
      – investigate it
      – embrace the result
      – try again
      – ask for feedback
      can help you to be in control of “the hammer” and make the impact less painful but helpful.

  5. CiteSimon says:

    So true. I think we have the choice before we “are found out.” Seems the healthiest mind-set is to recognize that failing is part of success and rather than pretend it doesn’t happen it’s better to welcome it – everything is a work in progress and subject to improvement. No shame in that, no need to hide it. Failure comes when we give up trying.

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