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How to handle failure

July 24, 2017


This week a blog post related to everything we do. No matter what your job is, no matter what you do, this blog entry should apply to you, and if it doesn't then you are lying to yourself.


Let's face it,  every single one of us has failed at something at one point in his/her life. Yet there seems to be some sort of stigma on failing. Children are drilled to succeed  at what they do,  be it at school, the sportclub or a plethora of other activities. Political correctness and cover ups are linked to the desire not to be seen failing. And how many times did you hear someone who failed at something being spitefully declared to be a 'Loser'.


In fact, the stigma is so big that many people are hesitant to act because they might fail. All over the offices umbrella's are going up so that failure cannot be seen as their fault.


But let us have a simple analytical look at this. No matter how complex your plan, there are always 3 possible outcomes: (1) success, (2) partial success/failure and (3) failure. But as we know from industrial models all complex plans can be seens as an coordination of smaller simple plans. In essence, the partial success/failure is defined as some of these simple plans being successful and others not. This leads to the fact that there are only two outcomes: success or failure.


Now look at the positive aspects of both rationally


  You accomplish what you set out to do


   I cannot find a real positive aspect about it, other than you know how it did not work.


But now look at a real world example: the discovery of radioactivity

Henry Becquerel (photo) was studying X-rays, He wanted to prove that uranium absorbed sunlight and then emited the absorbed energy as X-rays. To do so the plan was to expose uranium to sunlight, and then place it on photographic plates wrapped in black paper sheets (so that no light touched it).He set the experiment up. 


The next morning he realized it could not work, because the day before Paris was severly overcast all day so the uranium could impossibly have absorbed any sunlight. In other words the experiment had failed because he had not taken the overcast weather in account.


Yet eventhough he knew the experiment had failed he put the uranium on the photoplates anyway and developed them. Much to his surprise he did have a strong image.


By analysing his failure, he learned two things:

1) he disproved the hypothesis that uranium absorbed sunlight and emited the energy as X-rays

2) Uranium was emiting energy without an external energy source


Now let's compare again:

Success + analysis:

   You should be able to replicate what you did

Failure + analysis:

    Valuable insights are gained (discovering something, knowing why something didn't work etc)


That failure that didn't look so good, doesn't look so bad anymore now. In fact, I find it more exciting than success + analysis, which sounds quite boring to me. And this doesn't  limit itself to the field of science, but to everything we do.


Looking at it professionally, we all strive for success. In the instances where we do fail, we should not see the failure as a negative thing to be forgotten. It is the potential to gain valuable insights through analysis. Whether or not to pursue the analysis is another question of funds, risks etc.


The gained insights lead to what many inventors say: to way to success is to fail, fail and fail again. They strove for success but when they failed, they learned from it.


The bottom line: how do you handle failure?

Accept that you can fail, but learn from it,





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