etopiei's blog

A blog about minimalism, programming, productivity and happiness.
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Failure is Not the Cornerstone of Success

It's often said that failure is the key to success, that trying over and over again is the solution to eventually achieve our goals. The failure is the cornerstone, upon which great achievements are created, this analogy and this way of thinking is quite dangerous however, as it leads to futile effort and a misplacement of energy.
I would certainly agree that failure is important in shaping and moulding us, as individuals and as teams. Yet our ability to succeed is not measured by our failures but by our ability to stop failing. Let me explain a little more what I mean by this.
Disclaimer: I will speak from the perspective of learning to code for this article, but this concept applies more generally I believe and is worth exploring.

Let's say you have just begun to learn to code, you start with a simple hello world, and begin progressing through various data structures and operations. Along the way you make numerous mistakes. You miss semi-colons, you forget to close brackets, you make a small spelling mistake, from each of these experiences you learn something. Conventional wisdom would tell you that because you have failed and learned from your mistakes, you are headed for success and are on a fast-track to becoming an expert. Yet this is only the first step, you must take. There are several levels of responding to failure, the first and easiest is to give up and conclude that something is too hard. The next level is to go ok, I failed but I will try again, and this is greatly encouraged as a pathway to greater things. The level after that is to ask why I failed, to really think and understand the problem and learn from it. At this point most would say it has been a wonderful experience to fail and that you will be better off for this experience. While mostly true, I think one more critical step of evaluation is being missed, after that failure, when continuing on having learned from it, do you keep failing at the same rate or are you improving.
I think back to my first ever iPhone app I wrote, it took me days to create some fairly basic functionality and each bug took me hours to solve. Now creating this blog, a much more complicated system, I made few mistakes and could quickly resolve issues I faced.
Even with new and challenging materials, your rate of failure should be decreasing as you become more skilful. This is a sign of true aptitude for a particular task or endeavour, now I'm not saying that anyone will become perfect after a few weeks, or ever but too often I think we emphasise the importance of failure, the importance of sticking to something and seeing it through to the bitter end, but for what purpose?

I once watched a video about a man who decided to quit his job, play golf for a year and aimed to rack up his 10000 hours. This was supposed to be an inspiring video, but I was quite frankly shocked by it. It seemed like an enormous waste, why would you not find something that you have some aptitude for and something you enjoy, truth is you can get good at anything given enough time, but why bother if it isn't something that you feel happy doing, or something that you have some natural ability with. I wonder if our time would be better spent trying to find that thing that our failures disappear with, that we have a gift for, rather than blindly charging on, in an attempt to learn some new skill. Chasing this is what will bring out the best in us, and is something that is not sought with the desperation it deserves.


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