Success Always Starts With Failure

I’ve been reading a fascinating book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, by Tim Harford, an “economic journalist”. The book is surprisingly readable and impressive in the breadth of its case studies. His thesis is that in a complex world (which we in fact live in and is getting even more complex), succeeding at a project requires adaptation to changing circumstances and our failures.

Adapt book cover

Harford discusses with clarity issues such as how the Iraq war was carried out, the financial crisis of 2008, how to help people in developing nations, and a whole lot more.

In the end, of course, I was most interested in how to apply his insights to my own life. The last chapter of his book, “Adapting and you”, gave ideas:

The main goal is to be able to recover from failures. Since we cannot anticipate everything and are going to encounter failure in one form or another anyway, we might as well plan to make use of it. Not all of us are superhuman and can endure large humiliating failures all the time, so Harford discusses tips to avoid non-recoverable failures.

Failures of the mind

Harford starts with noting that we human beings are more frail than we sometimes think, and illustrates with three failures of the human mind. One is “denial”, our not even admitting that we failed. The threat to our ego is too great. But the first step in learning from a failure is to actually admit it.

Also, we “chase our losses”: after making a decision that turns out badly, we might continue along it hoping that things will magically turn out better eventually. It’s easier to maintain the hope that something bad will end up good, than admit the bad is hopeless and should be abandoned. We all know people who hang on in bad careers, bad financial investments, bad marriages, because it’s easier to hope that one didn’t make a bad decision after all, rather than quickly move on and avoid wasting more time, money, and heartache.

Finally, there is “hedonic editing”, in which we make ourselves feel better by thinking about gains along with the loss at hand, or convince ourselves that what we got (failure) was actually what we really were OK with all along. Some examples from my own life:


Harford says that since we are too soft on ourselves, we need a critic, such as trusted friends, to tell us honestly when we have not done well.

We need a safe place to experiment, where if we lose we are not trapped, but can continue on.

What this means to me

My blog is an experiment. It has been just over two weeks since I started it. I had a lot of anxiety over getting started: “what should I write about”, “for whom”, “how should I style the site”, “will I put up anything good”, and dozens of other random anxieties. To get started on this blog, I had to come up with a plan to stay the course, learn from mistakes, and accept honest feedback. I perceive my blog as a fairly “safe” place to experiment. I am committed to learning from my failures here!

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