What Success Cannot Teach Us
This weekend, I was watching Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass on writing. He shared something that caught my attention and caused me to think more deeply about.
“You learn more from finishing a failure than you do from writing a success.”
Finishing a Tetris Game Gone Bad…
When I was young, I remember playing the game Tetris on my Nintendo Gameboy (yes, I was around back then). For many years, I use to simply reset the game when it didn’t go the way I wanted or when it looked like I wasn’t going to win. Then at some point (I don’t recall exactly when or why) I decided to push myself to figure out how to rescue a game that wasn’t going well. Instead of hitting reset, I resolved to figure it out.
Most of the time, I didn’t rescue it, however, I got a lot further than expected. Every so often, I succeeded in rescuing the game. In those games where I persisted, I had to think differently. I had to react quickly to stop it from getting worse, while also fixing some of the damage I had already created. All the while, I needed to begin creating some lines and scoring points.
The Opportunity in Failing Attempts…
As a result of finishing a failure, I learned how to think and work my way through situations that weren’t going well. I developed the muscle for persistence and not giving up. I discovered new strategies that I could only uncover in situations that seemed hopeless. Part of the reason was that at that point, I felt like I didn’t have much to lose. That allowed me to take risks I would not take in a game that was already going well.
When a game is going well, no need to mess up a good thing. Just keep doing what works and don’t mess up. When a game is not going well, you figure you might as well give some ideas a try. After all, if you don’t, chances are you won’t save the game.
When I heard Neil say that line about finishing a failure, I recalled this experience. He is absolutely right. Even when it’s going poorly, there is still something to be gained from getting to the finish line.
The View from the Finish Line
In the bootcamps and courses I teach on entrepreneurship, I always tell participants not to worry about how it’s going, but rather to make sure they keep going. Getting to the finish line will be more valuable than getting it perfect. When I taught math, I used to say something similar to my students. I always pushed them to get to the end of the problem.
The view from the finish line is more insightful than that from the middle of the race. It’s difficult to know what would have worked or not worked if you stop halfway through.
When you look back from the finish line of a failure, you see the entire experience – the good, the mostly bad, and the ugly. Most of our learning comes from the bad and ugly.
Only at this point, can we learn to get back up. And when you do get back up, you have an opportunity to measure, learn, and try again.
One Person’s Trash is Another’s Treasure
There have been plenty of articles, talks, and workshops that I felt were a failure, however, I finished them. In most cases, it was because I could not walk out half way through a live session 🙂
However, what I discovered was that often, those failed attempts were only failed attempts from my perspective. Some people would reach out to let me know they were moved or impacted in a positive way by what I believed to be a failed attempt.
Just because I did not feel it was going well, doesn’t mean the audience didn’t get anything out of it. Perhaps I did not deliver the best talk, but if it impacted just a few people on a day they needed it, then it was not for nothing.
Unfinished work cannot be picked up by others who might treasure it. With that mindset, how dare I not finish a failing attempt.
In order to learn, innovate, or impact people with our failed attempts, we must finish the work. As we move through failed attempts, we will get to the massively successful ones. This is also one of the main reasons I keep on writing.