Last week I wrote about three seemingly unrelated experiences that coalesced to teach a common lesson.  This week, I’d like to take the same approach on the topic of smart failure. 

1) Seth Godin

Recently at AppNexus’ New York office, we posted a Seth Godin quote in giant letters on the wall:

“But what if I fail?”
You will.
The answer to the what if question is, you will.
A better question might be, “after I fail, what then?”
Well, if you’ve chosen well, after you fail you will be one step closer to succeeding, you will be wiser and stronger and you almost certainly will be more respected by all of those that are afraid to try.

– Seth Godin

I’m a big fan of the “fail fast/smart failure” ideology represented in the quote above, and this quote really hits home for me.  However, looking back over my life, not all of my failures have been smart.  Some failures have happened slowly, dragged on, and left me without a clear lesson.  This weekend, I got to thinking: what has separated my smart failures from those that weren’t so smart?

With my mind wandering, I stumbled upon two loose memories, #2 and #3 below:

2) Learning how to drive

I had the hardest time learning how to drive a car.  I was okay when I was out practicing in my parents’ car, but when I was in the car with the driving instructor I had trouble focusing and it was difficult for me to apply the material I learned in the classroom.  The reason I struggled when I was with the driving instructor doesn’t actually have anything to do with the instructor himself, but rather it has to do with control.

When I was out driving with my parents, I was in full control of the car and I knew that I had to drive carefully or else we would crash or drive off the road.  However, when I was out with the driving instructor, I was only partially in control.  At the first sign of any misstep, the instructor would reach over from the passenger seat, grab the steering wheel out of my hands and apply the custom brake he had installed on the passenger side of the vehicle.  He so over-used his privilege to take control that I lost confidence that I was the one truly in charge.  With such an active safety net, I was never allowed to make even minor mistakes and therefore I was slower to learn.  Also, because I didn’t feel in control, it was more difficult for me to experiment, try new things and find systems that worked for me.

3) This American Life on Foie Gras

A while back I listened to a This American Life podcast about foie gras.  Typically, to make foie gras, you have to tie down geese and inhumanely force-feed them large quantities of food until their livers swell to 10x the normal size.  This American Life told the story of one Spaniard who had figured out a way to make foie gras naturally and without mistreating the animals.

The story followed Dan Barber, a New York restaurateur, as he traveled to Spain to meet with Eduardo Sousa, the man who had naturally created foie gras.  When Dan arrived at Eduardo’s farm, he found something very peculiar: there were no fences to hold the geese in or to keep predators out.  Dan thought this was very bizarre.  It seemed like the geese could just freely come and go as they please.  When Dan pressed the issue, Eduardo revealed that his lack of fences was actually the secret to making foie gras naturally.  According to Eduardo, geese will naturally gorge themselves on food so long as they believe that they are wild.  The moment they become contained or fenced in, they lose their natural instincts, submit to a life in captivity, and rely on humans to bring them food.  However, while they are wild and they truly believe that they need to hunt to survive, they will gorge themselves on food in preparation for the winter.  Just as the weather starts to get cold and the geese have finished stuffing themselves, Eduardo captures the geese and makes the finest foie gras in the world.


So what do Seth Godin, learning to drive, and This American Life have in common?  They all have helped me understand the key determinant in the quality of my failures.  Looking back at both my “smart” and “not smart” failures, I think one of the most important variables has been whether or not I really felt like I was in control.  Almost all of my failures where I felt like I was 100% in control have taught me important lessons.  I tried, I failed, I learned.  When I wasn’t in control (e.g. I was in the drivers seat, but there was a watchful eye sitting next to me ready to grab the wheel), failures tended to drag on with uncertain conclusions, or fizzle out without a clear lesson.

The key take away here for me is that in order to truly fail fast and learn from your mistakes you have to be in control – you have to truly believe that you are in the wild.  Like the geese on Eduardo’s farm, you have to know in your heart of hearts that there is no safety net and it’s just you against nature.  When you know there is someone there to provide for you, your behavior changes.  You relax slightly and submit to a life where someone else is going to catch you before you make mistakes.

Real failure happens when you are in the wild – when you have to hunt for your food and prepare for times of feast and famine.

The Key to Smart Failure: Believing You’re In Control
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  • I agree – but I’d take it further and say that you can only learn when you feel in control of what you are doing. To break it down a trifle more, improvement comes from (i) identifying opportunity (e.g. something breaks), and (ii) fixing it. If you’re not in control, you may be able to identify a way to improve something (or you may be paying less attention), but you can’t try to fix it. Without the ability to try and fix an issue, you can’t learn.

    Interestingly, people who are especially effective in life have a (literally) delusional belief in their ability to control their life. In practice, that control is not there – but by acting as if it were (for every failure, assuming that if you had done it differently, you would have succeeded) increases the innovation you attempt and consequently your ultimate success.

    It’s humorous to note the causal impact of delusions. And how many of them people have to hold to be effective.

    Sometime, I’m reminded of Douglas Adam’s Restaurant at the End of the Universe and fairy cake.

  • I like it. Reminds me of this quote by George Bernard Shaw: “Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.”

  • Josh Grob

    There is something about this post that makes my skin crawl. I think it is the notion of being in 100% “control”. I think control is much more context specific than a simple maxim that you must be control since it is you versus nature. Let’s take your case of the driving instructor. Was he not exhibiting control? Wasn’t he just employing his safety net against nature?

    My worry with this post it that is conflates too many principles which can lead to bad outcomes if followed blindly. For instance, I believe that one must be in control and follow their wants/values and must guard them at all costs. However, as a manager of team you need to be very careful what you control (as little a possible) so that the best ideas and results will come to fruition, and you can truly leverage the power of a team.