How to Succeed After Failing

Many glorious success stories began in failure. Sir James Dyson went through over 5,000 failed prototypes in five years before creating the best-selling bagless vacuum cleaner. Award-winning movie director Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school not once but three times. And JK Rowling was turned down by 12 publishers before finding success with her Harry Potter books. 

These stories get told over and over again, reminding us of the important truth that failure is an inherent part of the road to success. But how exactly does failure lead to success? With the advent of data science, we now have tangible insights into the dynamics of failure, enabling us to break the cycle of failure and achieve our goals.

Fail Fast

In a 2019 study, data scientists from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago looked at the relationship between success and failure in three different domains: science, entrepreneurship, and terrorism and found that success comes down to the extent to which one learns from their previous failures and applies the learnt knowledge going forward.

But it is not simply about who learns more has better odds of victory. There is a critical tipping point. If your ability to build on your earlier attempts exceeds that threshold, you are likely to succeed in the end. Fall below it, and you might find yourself trapped in an endless cycle of repeated failures. 

According to the research, the best learners are those who evaluate components of their past failed tries, including feedback they have gathered from others, and incorporate the learnt information into their following attempts. Learning from enough lessons, they not only produce new iterations that are better each time but produce them faster over time until they eventually succeed. 

No wonder the popular mantra in entrepreneurship and innovation states that the ability to “fail fast and fail better” is key to success.

Fail Early

Don’t we all wish that we can succeed on our first try and don’t have to fail and try and try again? But now that we have science proving that early losers are likely to emerge as stronger winners in the long run, will this reshape our attitude towards failure?

In another study, researchers from Kellogg School of Management analysed the long-term career trajectories of junior scientists who applied for a prestigious research grant awarded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, comparing the “near-miss” with “near-win” individuals.

The research found that, despite an early setback, “near-miss” researchers ended up doing more influential scientific work than the “near-win” ones over the next ten years, bearing out the old expression “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Persevere—Learn—Apply (Repeat)

The combination of findings from both studies reveals a three-step success formula for how to effectively bounce back after experiencing failure.

  1. Persevere: You can choose to let failure either knock you out or make you tougher. Persevere and push through the initial setback, and hope endures. Give up entirely and you would have validated the naysayers and proven your failure. As American writer Elbert Hubbard said, “There is no failure except in no longer trying.”
  2. Learn: But having the resilience to try and try again is not enough. There are two benefits to failure. Firstly, there are many things from your previous failed experience that you can reuse without having to redo. And secondly, your failure would have provided valuable information and feedback on what worked and what didn’t. It is then up to you to critically reflect and analyse your failures and derive strategic learnings from your mistakes.  
  3. Apply: Now, learning is one thing, and applying the learnt knowledge is another. Lessons are only valuable if they are intentionally and thoughtfully incorporated into your new attempts—so that even if you fail on your next try, you fail better and fail faster until you eventually reach your goals. 

Implementing continuous productive improvements separates those who ultimately succeed from those trapped in repeated failures. If you find yourself stagnating in your progress, you are likely making unproductive improvements. Go back to the drawing board to reflect on what went wrong, analyse the reasons behind the failure, and extract new insights to guide your next course of corrective action.

And while you’re at it, whenever you feel like your morale is dwindling, remind yourself that it doesn’t matter if you fail early or fail often as long as you fail forward. That’s how you bounce back stronger after your failures and, in time, find success just around the corner (or after turning several corners).

Moral of the Story

Failing doesn’t equate to success. But it is continuous learning from failures that equates to continuous improvement, which leads to eventual success. 

So don’t hesitate to enrol in the extraordinary school of hard knocks because you are likely to find some great teachers there.

And the next time you learn about a person’s achievements, don’t forget the setbacks they had to persevere and overcome. Because few great successes were ever achieved without a big back story of failures.