No, You Don’t Learn More from Failure

This article was originally published on Medium.

You probably believe, like so many people I’ve talked to, that you learn more from failure from success. Unfortunately, that’s total bullshit - in general, the only thing you learn from failure is, of all the ways you could have failed, you have discovered one of them. As a result, you’re wasting your time, making yourself and the people around you less happy, and losing the opportunity to be better, faster.

I used to believe this, too, but I’ve since learned that success is dramatically more important than failure, which has made me a better leader, friend, and father. In fact, I’ll show that you agree with me, even if you don’t realize it. If you can briefly invert what you’ve likely heard and said so much, this essay might just help you achieve more success, and be happier while on the path.

You Don’t Believe It

I’ve got a simple proposition that makes this really clear, but I also want to go deep in a couple of areas to explain why this belief is not just wrong, it’s dangerous.

Let’s say you’re building a garage (which, it turns out, I currently am), and you have two contractors to choose from: Someone who has attempted to build ten garages, and has successfully built ten garages; or someone who has tried to build ten garages, and has successfully built zero.

Obviously, you and everyone you know would hire the person who has experienced more (or rather, any) success building garages, and you’d ignore as a quack the person who couldn’t even build a single garage. But I thought you learned more from failure than from success?!

There are a bunch of other obvious examples. Do you want to learn basketball from Kobe Bryant or a basketball player who got dropped in college, you go for the one with success? Does your restaurant belong on a popular street with other successful restaurants and lots of reasons for people to visit, or a desolate strip where no restaurant has succeeded? Even, do you fight to take control of a busy drug corner, or try to convince users to go to a different corner? (Yes, I’m watching The Wire.) Should you emulate someone who has started 5 companies and never made any money, or someone who’s started one and built to a billion dollar company? There’s a reason we lionize the founders of Google et al, but can’t remember who started Webvan, much less any of the thousands of people whose companies never even got off the ground.

Why is it so alluring to think we learn more from failure than from success? A lot of it comes from the value of studying failures, both your own and others. The fact that you learn more from success doesn’t mean you can’t learn from failure; often, the only way to succeed is to study the failures, because, funny thing, in the beginning failure is all we usually have.

But don’t let that confuse you into thinking failure is somehow more worthwhile than success. When you fail, you often get stuck - you can’t move forward until you’ve fixed it. You lose time, momentum, and more. When you succeed, you can move on to the next step in your project, but more importantly, you have a single thing that you know works. There’s always a chance something else works better, and you might conclude at some point it’s important to improve what works (I’m always worried about local maxima), but if you’re failing, you can’t even start to worry about that.

Not Just Wrong; Dangerous

Think about your behaviors if you’re focusing on the failures instead of the successes. You’ve got a big sales team, a broad customer base, or even your own child. There’s always a wide variety of success and failure across your team, or even within an individual. If you focus on learning from failure, you’ll spend all your time with the failing salespeople, the pissed off customers, or the part of your kid’s life where they’re struggling.

Contrast that with focusing on success, on what works. You spend all your time with your best salespeople, ensuring they’re closing better deals even more quickly, and you learn from them what helps them outperform, so you can bring it back to the rest of the team. You work most closely with your happiest customers, figuring out what they love about your product and how you can find and create more customers like them. You’ve also spent a ton of time with your kid in the areas where they’re strong and awesome. They get to build life skills, and enough self-confidence they can more easily tackle the problems they’re not as good at.

In all of these areas, the individuals who are most important to you know you care about them, because you’re spending time with them, and they know you respect and appreciate their success because you’re focused on what they’re great at.

Think how your best people feel if you show up and instead of talking about the great deals, successful usage, or artistic talent, you only ever discuss their failures - “Because you’re focused on learning from failure.” Really?

Yet this is exactly the naive behavior of many managers, product managers, and parents. You ignore your best people, you ignore the things that are working well, and you force successful people to wallow in the misery of their failures.

Route Around the Failure

It’s not just that you should be more focused on the things that are working than those that aren’t; it’s that, in general, you should just literally ignore the failures.. You’re standing at a golf tee and you hit 20 balls. Most of them go wild and do stupid things, but one connects cleanly and lands on the fairway. Who cares about the other 19? Just figure out how to copy that 20th shot every day!

Obviously it’s not possible to ignore all failures, but when you can, it makes a ton more sense to just keep iterating until something works, without really making any attempt to understand those things that aren’t working. You try something 20 times, and only one works? Awesome! You found something that worked! Run with it.

Nature fully understands this. Nature cares nothing for failures. All those animals that failed to pass on their genes to viable offspring? Nature’s too worried about letting the successes run things to worry about the missing genes of the failures. Yes, I’m inappropriately ascribing intent to a natural process, but you get the idea. And yes, Nature generally operates on a longer time scale than the average startup, but you never get to viable offspring by spending all your time with animals that can’t have kids, and you’ll never get to a great product by worrying about the customers who think your product is stupid (unless that’s the only kind of customer you have).

Focusing on Failure is Depressing

I’ve never been accused of having too sunny a disposition, but this shift in perspective has dramatically improved my own outlook on life and how I work with everyone around me. The shift was heavily inspired by reading Switch by the Heath brothers; its subtitle is, “How to make change when change is hard”, and it really hammers home that focusing on the successes, no matter how small, is what allows progress. It’s not just that this works, though - it’s a lot more enjoyable.

Everyone hates spending all their time talking about the things they suck at, the projects that aren’t working, the customers that don’t renew, the classes you’re failing. Yes, you do have to do some of that, but it turns out, you don’t have to do nearly as much as you think. In fact, you should spend the majority of your time on the things that really are working. It’s not being a Pollyana - it’s following success, and it makes you and everyone around you happier and healthier.

One of the implications of this practice is that you rightfully give up more quickly on the failures than you might otherwise. You focus on the paths that are working well, and tend to quickly abandon approaches that aren’t working. All of your efforts and experience naturally concentrate on the areas most likely to lead to successful outcomes. .

Use It On Yourself, Too

This isn’t just about how you work with other people or stuff; it’s also about you. I’m not a big believer in following your passion, but I do believe strongly that nearly everyone has a different collection of strengths and weaknesses, and that most people have at least one or two strengths that they can form into truly valuable assets.

You have a choice in your life between spending all of your time on those things that you can be truly great at, or spending it trying to turn the things you suck at into things that you are merely bad at.

I’m personally strong on product, brand, and culture, but I’m never going to be great at operations or sales. I could work my whole life, and probably go from being a 2/10 in operations to being a 4/10, which still couldn’t get me a job. However, if I work enough, maybe I could turn my natural strength in product design from a 8/10 to a 9/10 or even 10/10. Which of these is a bigger asset to me personally, and to the people around me? Even better, which do you think is going to be more fun for me?

Yes, there are some areas where you have true liabilities, and you sometimes have to invest enough focused practice in these so they’re not holding you back, but even in those areas, you’re better off working hard to be part of a team that complements your weaknesses, rather than trying to make sure you’re good at all of it.

Yes, Failure Does Actually Matter

It’s true, this article is a touch hyperbolic, and I suppose some readings of it could cause one to conclude I think failure is irrelevant and you should always ignore it (even though I explicitly say above that failure is sometimes critical to understand).

Of course, I don’t actually believe that. I get a huge amount of utility from failure. I’ve studied crash logs with the best of them, I am a big fan of postmortems, and I prefer never to experience the same failure twice, which usually means I need to invest in understanding it well enough to prevent its reoccurrence.

What I want you to learn, though, is that you need to seek success. If you’ve got a product that isn’t quite doing what you want but has some happy customers doing some weird thing you don’t understand, go study their success and learn how to build on it. If you’ve got one programmer who ships more high quality software faster and more frequently than anyone else, shouldn’t you deeply invest in knowing what makes her special and how to spread that skillset around your organization? Your kid doesn’t fit in, and isn’t going to become the doctor you always dreamed of, but might accidentally be a music prodigy or a professional athlete; shouldn’t you dive deep into that, rather than wringing your hands about them not fulfilling your dreams for them?

Water flows downhill, routing around blockages, and everyone’s path to greatness involves developing that same ability to put all the weight behind the things that are working, and not get too fussed about the things that aren’t. If you can do that, you’ll be happier, more successful, and actually enjoy the time you spend helping the people around you achieve meaningful success in life and in work.

The case for the iPad’s long-term future

Based on both individual anecdotes of purchased iPads lying fallow around the house and Apple’s recent announcement that iPad sales were essentially flat year over year, some are predicting that the iPad is not the future of computing that has been predicted.

I’m not quite willing to make big predictions about computing overall, because I really hate being wrong and there’s no real benefit here in being right, but I couldn’t be more confident in the iPad’s future, and it’s not an argument that I’ve heard widely.

TL;DR: The iPad already has great successes, and just by itself those will do well. Most of our apps and workflows haven’t been rebuilt from the ground up for the iPad, though, so we’re not getting the best from it. And there is a great market opportunity in the millions of iPads that are underutilized, and the first app developers that crack that market by playing to the iPad’s strengths will make it big and create an even bigger pull for the iPad through those successes. If you love a computer, the iPad’s not for you, but it’s definitely for someone.

Longer version:

First, let’s look at where the iPad is successful. And I don’t mean, let’s look where it’s purchased; I mean, let’s look at where its users actually get fantastic usage out of it. If this usage is small and meaningless, it doesn’t mean the iPad is meaningless, but it does limit past data in usefulness for predicting the future. But if that success isn’t meaningless, it points to possibilities.

It’s absolutely true that the major use cases for the iPad are in consumption, not production. Weirdly, the vast majority of what humans do, in general, is consumption and not production. I receive 230 emails a day and send 30, on average, so an iPad that was 10x better at managing incoming mail than sending new mail might work better for me than a laptop (depending on how I rate its relative strengths).

People have found the iPad is great for watching videos, reading - books, magazine articles, comics, twitter, and more. People dismiss the iPad for this - “consumption isn’t as important” - but the reality is, your laptop sucks at consumption. Reading magazines or books, watching TV, and reading twitter are all pretty much crap on the laptop compared to the iPad. Yes, you can do it; no it’s not as good.

So, if the iPad were just relegated to being the best enabler of consumption, I think it would do pretty well, since it would also leak over to not-quite-consumption, like trawling the internet for great pictures to post to Pinterest. This might not be the super-exciting future, but I think it’s still a better business than I could think of building.

Beyond consumption, though, there’s another big area it’s doing well: Replacing computers for people who don’t have computers. I’ve personally given away about 15 iPads (this is just for personal stuff; I’ve given away more for work, including 12 of the very first iPads to all the employees I had at the time), and for most of those, they didn’t have a computer, and for most of those, they now don’t need one. Of course, many of the iPads were to young kids, aged 5-10, by those kids will get most of the benefits of a computer without needing the complexity of a full computer.

It’s not just kids, though; my dad could use the computer he shared with my mom, but he never embraced it. He has been literally emailing me weekly about how giddy he is to go to a coffee shop and write email on his iPad. He didn’t feel comfortable doing this with the laptop, but he loves it now. He’s by no means the only person I know who either doesn’t own or doesn’t use a laptop because they now have an iPad.

Everyone who needed a computer already has one, but not everyone has a computer. Many of those who don’t need a computer also don’t need an iPad, and maybe a smartphone is perfect for them; but the group in the middle, who don’t need a laptop but for whom a smartphone isn’t sufficient, could really thrive on an iPad.

Just these two successes are a great business, if not necessarily a 100% growth business indefinitely. But there’s a lot more.

The next thing that gives me confidence in the iPad is how few of our tools have been rebuilt to work with an iPad workflow. Most of what I try to use on the iPad is an attempt at porting either iphone or laptop apps. That can work, but it won’t automatically. I often use a keyboard for my iPad, but essentially nothing has good keyboard shortcuts, for instance; I would never tolerate this in a laptop app, but it’s not really a choice on the iPad (for now).

I don’t know what it will take to rethink my critical apps and workflows to work on the iPad, I just know it hasn’t been done yet. And yet, even without that, it’s literally my favorite computing device by a mile. I use my phone constantly. My laptop is a workhorse. But I love my iPad. Every time I pick it up I can feel the future of computing just fighting to get out. There are so many little bits of my iPad life that need to be shaved, molded, tweaked, cut, poked, prodded, or beaten to a pulp; when that happens, we’ll be in a whole new world.

The world just hasn’t been creative enough yet to figure out how to take advantage of what the iPad can do. Remember: This thing is only a few years old. It might be 10 years before we really figure it out. That’s not an iPad failure, though; that’s a market failure. There’s a lot of creativity yet to do.

It’s that market failure - which I feel keenly every time I pick up my iPad - that really closes it for me. The iPad has an amazing future because there are fifty million people who pick up an iPad with hope in their hopes, dreaming of the awesome things this can help them do. Today, too many of them are disappointed with the answer. But tomorrow, they’ll pick it right back up again, with hope in their eyes once more. In the mean time, Apple will continue to sell a ton of iPads. Maybe it will only cough be twenty million a quarter or whatever, but that’s still a big market.

I am very confident that that market opportunity will push people to invent new ways to excite those users. Yeah, everyone’s currently trying the obvious, stupid stuff: “Hey, let’s just make a crappy html5 version of our web app” or “Hey, let’s just upscale our iphone app”. That’s not really working. Something, however, will work. Imagine the iphone if Loren Brichter hadn’t gotten ahold of it and invented and created as much as he did. You can’t force that, but with enough people trying, and enough clear demand, it’ll happen, and it’ll change the way you use your iPad.

I hear a lot of people say the big barrier is cross-application communication, but I think a lot of that is trying to copy the strengths of the laptop to the iPad, which might not be how the iPad comes into its own. You don’t use your phone to do things you used to do on your laptop (at least, not primarily); why would you use your iPad for that?

I’m not sure what strengths of the iPad will come to the fore in a way that makes it its own device, but I have some ideas.

As an example, people totally undervalue the fact that it doesn’t go to sleep. Just comparing email on an iPad to a laptop, there isn’t a great email client for the iPad yet that I have found (and trust me, I’ve looked; I’ve got at least seven mail apps installed on my phone), but I like a lot of the core email experience on the iPad dramatically more.

Most of the time I check my email I’ve got about 15-30 minutes. My goal is to delete, send to my task list, or reply to as many emails as possible. With my laptop, I either need to leave it at my desk all day, or when I open it I have to give it some time to find wifi (or get an IP from ethernet), then download all of my mail. This could take 30 seconds, but with (don’t ask), it could also take 15 minutes. Yes, it would be better with gmail, but it wouldn’t be instantaneous.

Let’s compare that to the iPad. It’s always on. It’s always online, because I’ve got an LTE chip in mine (I’ve had every version of the iPad since the very first, and every one with a mobile modem since they supported them). So, I open my iPad, boom, all the mail is right there. No wait, no IP acquisition, not downloading mail. Done.

Let’s take this to the extreme case: I often travel with just the iPad, and I use it in ways I couldn’t use a laptop. I get on a plane, put my iPad into airplane mode, and when I’m aloft I start processing email (with a keyboard). The email is right there, already downloaded, ready to go. When I land, I turn off airplane mode, and the email just sends; no work for me.

The same work on my laptop requires that I sit down at the terminal, pull out the laptop, pair it with my phone or iPad (or gamble on the airport wifi), wait the who-knows-how-long until syncs with gmail, then put everything away. When I land (having probably done slightly more work in the 1.5 hr flight I usually take), I have to do the same thing: Find a chair, open the laptop, pair with device, wait until the 20-50 emails I wrote on the flight get sent. I’ve spent a long time on the freeway with my laptop open and connected to my phone, trying to upload mail.

Total iPad win. The laptop might support this at some point, but it’s just not built to literally be online 100% of the time. This plays to the strengths of the iPad, and will be hard to import anywhere else.

What else plays to this strength? I think there are tons and tons of areas that could benefit from being online 100% of the time, and you can see most of Apple’s development work is in improving this so apps can stay open more, download more often, be more up to date, etc. If my iPad evolves so that every app on it always has its content up to date, but I can never build a mixed-media blog post, well, I would take that trade.

Just think about the iPad-specific interfaces and experiences that have built. Hmm. There aren’t a lot. I know of some that have tried, like iPhoto, but many of them have been not so great. The only ones I can think of that really work are the app-switching moves: Four finger swipe for app switching (which works poorly because I can never figure out how the device orders the apps), and the five-finger app close gesture. For a completely new device and form factor, that’s not much real innovation in interaction.

The point, though, is I don’t need to know what happens next. I just have to be confident that the market opportunity of tens of millions of underutilized iPads in the hands of excited people who have proven they’ll spend money on technology will draw enough experimentation that we’ll get to see the true innovation. This is a young product, and it’s a product that’s sufficiently similar to others that people haven’t really let it grow into its own. There’s enough money and interest in the system, and enough truly awesome parts of the iPad experience, that I’m absolutely confident it will.

Too many people are saying the iPad is a dud because they’re a computer user and their usage doesn’t translate well to the iPad. They’re not approaching the experience with a beginner’s mind, and are instead saying, “I know it’s a new device, but it should do exactly what the old one does.” One of the commentators on the Accidental Tech podcast seems to have set “create a mixed media blog post” as the critical success criteria, but I bet less than 1 in 10000 computer users, if that, ever actually need to do that. Even when I blog, I just do straight text. Hell, I probably include more code snippets (well, used to) in my posts than pictures, but I’d be crazy to make that a requirement, because I understand the iPad’s market isn’t me.

To that commentator, I would recommend they go read Innovator’s Dilemma. Disruptive technology is rarely used by the users of the old technology. The laptop, or desktop, or whatever, makes you happy. Great. The iPad’s not for you. It’s for people who don’t need what you need, and are satisfied with a much simpler solution with some kinds of power that are greater, and the reduced complexity is a critical part of its success. (Really, read Innovator’s Dilemma.)

And seriously, if you’re getting an iPad, and you can afford it, get it with an LTE chip. It dramatically changes the experience. I couldn’t live without it. And don’t say I can tether it. Not at all the same.

My recommendation is, don’t ask what it would take to cause you to switch to an iPad. Ask what you aren’t doing today that you’d like to be able to do. Ask who isn’t using a computer and could be. Ask how the world will change when every device and every app is online all the time. Wonder what kind of gestures will dramatically increase the power and intuitiveness of the iPad. And see if you can’t come up with an app that will make those fallow iPads just that bit more sexy.

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