28 Oct 2012

A little observation on how failure shapes success

I have been tackling some incredibly hard problems at work over the past few months. While I can’t quite yet talk about all of it, I wanted to share a meta observation that I gleaned along the way.

It’s hard to dispute that repeatedly failing at something tends to increase our chances of succeeding at it. This is the basic premise of Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule of success as well: over time, we learn from our mistakes and get better.

There is however, one more aspect of repeated failure that’s a lot more subtle, and worth mentioning here: repeated failure helps us understand what it takes to succeed, and in the process even redefine the notion of success. Success is a fairly arbitrary term, and in a complicated field of work, it’s usually not very easy to define it in an isolated, cut and dry fashion. We also tend to have multiple goals, often in conflict with each other. For instance, you might fail to solve a simple problem, but in the process partially solve a different problem, having far greater impact on your other goals. Or you might even realize that you did not in fact want to succeed at what you wanted for various reasons. Both of these have occurred to me in the past few months.

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