There is a man that haunted, crippled and talked me down for years and his name is Earl Keith Miller. He is a successful cognitive neuroscientist who studied at Princeton University and taught at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). As a scientist, his work comprises of a lot of research. As a scientist, he serves humanity in the most honorable way: he collects information, analyses it and tells us what to do, not to do and what is wrong and right in a lot of cases.
In 2009, four years ago, I was in my first undergraduate semester – a freshman eager to do everything right from the beginning until the very end. 2009 was also the year when I read an article on the Ethiopian Review about him and his new, important findings.
This is where the drama begins.
“Successes are more informative than failures”, Earl said, meaning: If you fail at something you probably know why. You got fired because you showed up late most of the time. Your spouse left because you showed up too many times at the wrong place, with the wrong person. You already know the reason you failed.
But “if you succeed, everything has gone right, so there’s a lot more information in successes than failures,” Miller continued, meaning: We learn more from success, not failure.
And this is where the climax begins.
Naturally I assumed I should study the successful if I wished to be successful. And I did. For years and years, and even until now, I read biographies of people who are held to be successful members of our society, in their own way, in their own niche – not telling me that most of them rarely talk about failures in their lives. Having founded a startup magazine myself, I regularly read about the successful startups that the Fortune magazine displays so heroically – not telling me that most startups don’t actually start up. And I studied night after night wanting to become like the average A – students – not knowing that there are a lot more reasons why I had not as many As as them than just my IQ. In short, because failure became invisible, the difference between failure and success became invisible, too.
In 2009, I firmly believed that there is an infinite number of ways to fail and only a few ways to succeed and in 2013, I must correct myself: there is an infinite number of ways to fail and an infinite number of ways to succeed.
But herein lies the difficulty: the hard part is pinning down the cause of success.
Most people just point at highly visible things, and make claims like
“StartupX is successful because the founders worked extremely hard, the office culture was well-developed, and there were lots of team building activities.”
“StudentX gets a lot of A grades because he studies a lot.”
The problem is that this ignores the 5,000 other startups and eager students that did all those same things, but failed. Perhaps it turns out that StartupX really succeeded because they had a sales guy with lots of good connections and et cetera. Or StudentX really had better grades because he studied with the right people, had the right routines and et cetera.
Causation is not relation, everybody knows that. But it is damn hard to figure out what and often the people themselves are biased and don’t really know why they have become successful. I would say a big percentage of tips you get are less useful than you might think, perhaps even harmful, but to figure out which one of them depends on your judgment.
In the words of one of my favorite journalists, David McRaney on his blog youarenotsosmart.com:
If you spend your life only learning from survivors, buying books about successful people and poring over the history of companies that shook the planet, your knowledge of the world will be strongly biased and enormously incomplete. As best I can tell, here is the trick: When looking for advice, you should look for what not to do, for what is missing, but don’t expect to find it among the quotes and biographical records of people whose signals rose above the noise. They may have no idea how or if they lucked up. What you can’t see, and what they can’t see, is that the successful tend to make it more probable that unlikely events will happen to them while trying to steer themselves into the positive side of randomness. They stick with it, remaining open to better opportunities that may require abandoning their current paths, and that’s something you can start doing right now without reading a single self-help proverb, maxim, or aphorism. Also, keep in mind that those who fail rarely get paid for advice on how not to fail, which is too bad because despite how it may seem, success boils down to serially avoiding catastrophic failure while routinely absorbing manageable damage.
Sites like Admitting Failure and events like FailFaireDC 2012 which have recently attempted to bring together stories of projects gone wrong, addressed the need to discuss failures. I will try to do that, too.