Monday, December 21, 2015

Is Failure the Key to Success?

There's a recent bestseller called Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win that is very popular in Silicon Valley lately.

Part of the idea is to give yourself permission to fail. So many people with good ideas never get started or take risks because they’re afraid of failing or being embarrassed. 

According to Pixar founder Ed Catmull in his book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, Director Andrew Stanton (Nemo) urges his staff to "fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.” Working through problems makes sense in the animation business because the costs mount quickly as an idea moves through the pipeline.

Neil Gaiman says: “Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.”

The BBC reported about a design college that divided a class into two groups, one that was told they would be graded on the quantity of what they produced, and another that was told they would be graded on quality. The quantity group produced not only more work, but more quality work. The quality group was stuck in the envisioning stage.

At Google, the mantra in their skunkworks is a little different. It's "Build fast, break stuff." They create lots of new ideas, and as a strong one emerges, they develop it, but they also actively try to kill it. If an idea survives that process, they keep going with it. 

As for me, I think it's important to allow a space for failure, but I think a person or an organization only wins by focusing on winning. I'm personally doubtful about the "fail fast, fail often" mantra. It definitely doesn't apply to enterprises where failures can be catastrophic, such as auto racing, aeronautics, or space travel.

But even in the relatively low-risk arena of picture making, I think focusing on failure as a goal is not terribly helpful. 

There's an interesting MIT study that looks at what goes on in the brains of monkeys when they're learning. It turns out that "brain cells may only learn from experience when we do something right and not when we fail." The study leader says: "We have shown that brain cells keep track of whether recent behaviors were successful or not." Author Deborah Halber continues, "When a behavior was successful, cells became more finely tuned to what the animal was learning. After a failure, there was little or no change in the brain - nor was there any improvement in behavior." 

The way I would describe my mindset is: Visualize the goal and start out with a playful, experimental attitude. Keep a low enough investment in any preliminary idea to allow yourself to let it go if it’s not working so you can find a better idea. Many ideas that turn out to be successful start off looking weak and unlikely at first. 

Once you’ve got a good idea and you’ve tested it and thought through all the ways it could go wrong, then the mindset has to change. Carrying a big idea to its conclusion requires a dogged, long-term commitment. Don’t let anything stop you until the final result is as good as it can be. 

Unsuccessful efforts are not failures. They’re only a real failure if you don’t learn anything from them. Each trial generates a nugget of value, even if it turns out to be off track. The successful final result, which may look to someone from the outside like a stroke of genius, is just the harvesting of little successes plucked from the abandoned prototypes developed along the way.

To boil that down: “Generate lots of ideas, test them, and then build on what works, always with an eye toward success.”

Read more
BBC: "How Creativity is Helped by Failure"
MIT Study: Why we learn more from our successes than our failures
The Verge: The Good Dinosaur is looking like Pixar's first box-office failure
Thanks to blog reader Paul Foxton and to Frank and Dan Gurney (all three of you).


A Colonel of Truth said...

Failure is success. Could be discovery (validation) of what does not work. Or better still discovery of something purposeful never imagined (and not discovered if not for "failure"). From mess order, inevitably. So Nature teaches.

Jim Douglas said...

Bill Pearl, an American bodybuilder who won the Mr. Universe contest five times, believes you should never train to failure:

"My approach to training has always been to push yourself in your workouts, but do not train to failure! The last rep should be difficult, but not impossible or unachievable. And I've always been a great believer that you should leave the gym each day feeling like you had a great workout but you've still got a little bit left in the gas tank, so to speak. Because if you don't leave the gym with the feeling of having something in reserve, you will sooner or later reach a point where your training begins to seem so hellish and burdensome, you will either start missing workouts or stop training altogether. And then where is your progress?
So speaking from experience, I urge you: Train hard, yes, but not to failure. Complete what you start -- and that means every rep. I believe that this approach will not only ensure that you'll stay with your training program year after year (obviously training longevity is a very important aspect of all of this) but you'll also make the greatest progress. Why? Because you'll be training yourself for success in each and every rep, set and workout. Your training will be a positive rather than negative experience. And you'll be much more likely to keep your enthusiasm high and to avoid injury, overtraining and mental burnout."

Rubysboy said...

The "fail early and often to succeed sooner" doctrine works best when you are exploring truly untracked areas, where you have no idea what you might find. It's advantage then is that you try many different paths, including ones you would never have thought to try because you thought you would be stupid or just because you lacked the imagination to foresee them. If you are tackling a more incremental challenge, where you know the result you're striving for, it's undoubtedly better to focus on trials that bring you closer to your goal. So in painting, when you're searching for your voice, your subject, your style -- fail early and often and see which blunders you like and seem to have potential. When you're trying to make better thin lines, focus on your most successful trials.

Lou said...

When I took my first plein air workshop about 7 years ago I asked an accomplished fellow attendee how long it took her to get where she was. "Oh, about a thousand pieces" she said. That set me back on my heels and shook my desire. At the rate I could paint at the time (a Sunday painter I think the term is) I’ll never get anywhere I thought.
Fortunately in another workshop shortly after the instructor gave me some principles that buoyed my spirits. Regardless of production it's about improvement he stressed. He said look at every piece you do critically with improvement as the goal. You may paint a half dozen what you consider "duds." But when you critique each one you will likely find that some part, composition, value, etc., is better. Grab that little piece and carry it to your next attempt. You're progressing, he said. Don't settle, critically examine each attempt, and never in your journey become complacent or believe that you can't improve.
For myself I’ve recognized I have to compromise my innate perfectionism. I want everything I do to be great. By far the two best things I've done to improve my painting is increase my production and allow myself the duds, recognizing they are part of the process. Of course it doesn't hurt that I’m feeling the successes are more frequent.

Susan Krzywicki said...

I think: beware of testosterone-fueled approaches to "success." The idea of failure being helpful has been blown up into a competitive game, as all these management theories are.

As we let the dust settle on this sensationalism, the role of experimentation resolves into its useful place in each individual's life. It is unique to the person and unique in how it feels.

That is what I love about your work an your writings: finding what is true for a specific person at a specific time, by doing specific things that are creative.

Thank you.

Karen Eade said...

The word "failure" should be banned in the context of painting, I think. I try not to allow that word to creep into my thinking, because painting is hard enough as it is. I like Thomas Edison's attitude to the whole topic of failing.
Asked about how he felt to have "failed" in his experiments he was supposed to have said: "I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work".
He also said "Show me a man who failed, and I will show you a man who gave up too soon."
When my paintings do not turn out as well as I had hoped, like the painting looked in my mind when I began - which is most of the time, tbh - I remember what he said, allow myself the shortest possible time of mourning and general self-pity. And start the next one.
Perhaps this is what 'fail fast, fail often' means, if you subtract the testosterone element that Susan pointed out and all the PR guff. It just means "keep on trying".

A Colonel of Truth said...

When asked what medium he used John Singer Sargent said, "Brains." He made no mention of testosterone. Stick with Sargent's formula. By the way, hope is not a course of action. In painting, the first stroke is (absolutely) perfect - in hue, value, chroma, temperature, and shape. With the second stroke begin corrections until something satisfactory appears. Then stop. A brain (of experience) is required for knowing when.

krystal said...

You're absolutely right on the Googs. This year, there was a project called CloudSpin that literally evolved out of a group within Google NY essentially being given a task of "suppose you were a CEO of a Startup. Create a product in 3 weeks". They created a product that converted ten to 19 video camera video stills into GIFs and stitched them together in the Cloud.
These projects provide an opportunity for people to think outside of just being an employee, just doing what you are known for. You're expected to grow and be multi-disciplinary/ well-rounded. They had to investigate everything from electronics (ie would our system be proprietary given the time-frame) and building a board to figuring out an audio marker (and these were not audio/video people) and creating gifs using the cloud services they had (Firebase, etc), so you come out learning more skills and working hard and problem solving with no template. The group also did a huge tour all over so they could not be introverts; they had to present their ideas/ projects to a plethora of people with confidence and competence. The point it is near impossible to be 100 percent perfect at all of these things so failure is inevitable. But you have a goal so you work on it and keep going.

I think that the most creative people are that way; everything is essentially just a tool and they tend to be great at a lot of things (even though we may only know them as "the X guy/ girl". As much as craft is important, there is a lovely balance of craft and legitimate creativity in problem solving in the best people.

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Rich said...

I was just pondering about subtle and gross failures:

In former times there had been dissatisfied painters, who in a rage of failure tore things apart.
"I can't get no satisfaction":o)

In today's times them failded paintings would be auctioned
at Sotheby's.

A Colonel of Truth said...

With a painter who weeps, who dies of rage before their canvas, there is hope. - Georges Clemenceaux

cliff edge said...

I wish I knew what does failure means in the context of art. In fields like technology or business it's more obvious. I don't think we can trust entrepreneurs from silicon valley on this one.

-Does not making money from your art counts as failure? Clearly not. Plenty of brilliant artists were poor.
-Not being socially approved? Lack of popularity? Many innovators were mocked before their own deaths.
-Not living up to your own standards? I don't think artists are ever satisfied with their work.
-Not being original? We all learn from imitation. Plenty of art that I would call "successful" copies others.
-Plenty of humor and entertainment can come from failure. Does that really makes a failure?
-There are many downsides to success. Losing inspiration, higher stakes, being held to a harder standards, etc.
-The label of success or failure isn't static. Some blunders can gain fans and become cult hits down the road. Some worldwide hits are forgotten in a month (ahem, Avatar). This is exclusive to art and this is why I can't trust the failure-success ideology from economists.
Some of my old drawings feel well done, then years later feel awkward and naive, and more years later they feel endearing and fun.

So I go by the idea of "How to defeat Kolrami" by Steve Pavlina.
If you enjoy the game, you want to keep playing it for a long long time. It makes little sense to try to end the game by winning or quitting when you lose.

Unknown said...

Karen Eade said...

Great post, Cliff Edge. Love the observations about success. Even success can be seen as failure - I'm sure most of us occasionally feel that is something we would like to personally test out (like people who say money doesn't make you happy - "try me", I always think). Anyway, that's what Henri Matisse said. I never really understood his remark until I read this post of yours, so thanks. He said: "I was very embarrassed when my canvases began to fetch high prices. I saw myself condemned to a future of nothing but masterpieces."

Bobby La said...

Fortunately we are talking about art here and not open heart surgery. Art is the playground for failure, where ideas, modes of seeing the world and by extension - how to live within it are tested. It is safe, secure and while often fraught, no lives have been lost or families destroyed.

Bought your 2 instructables -"WC in the Wild" and "Gouache in the Wild" yesterday too Mr Gurney. Terrific work. Very happy. Can highly recommend.


Chris James said...

I'm sure the road to developing proper technique of open heart surgery was fraught with failure and experimentation. I wonder how many human and animal lives were failed to get to that point.

It's pretty simple to me. The point is to push past the fear of failure in order to produce. That design college experiment speaks to this, as does the second paragraph of this article. Too many people never get off the ground because they are afraid of embarrassment, or of realizing how far they have to go to become competent or competitive. Creators need to train themselves to finish. They need to allow themselves that ill proportioned sketch if they are to advance at all, or that experimental jet that crashes above 20 feet. Embracing a failure mindset reminds me of the Chinese proverb "Go straight to the heart of danger, for there you will find safety."

Rich said...

Great post, Cliff Edge:
just re-read it once more again.

seadit said...

Wow, what a great discussion (I type as my wife and others wrap Christmas gifts late-night)!! Thought I had made up my mind on the subject, now I have more to ponder and consider as I move forward with my own studies and efforts. Thank you and Merry Christmas to you all!

Hamenopi said...

As Seth Godin says. "The person who fails the most wins."