Good vs Bad failure


  • “The thing you really need to watch out for is systematic failure. Systematic failure happens when there’s a particular goal you want to achieve, but never get to.”

Not all failure is embraceable. Sort of like the cholesterol in the heartbeat of your life, there’s “good” failure and “bad” failure.

While “Embracing Failure” is the conventional moniker for the philosophy of mining silver linings and the title of my very first post on the subject, I actually decided to titled the overall blog “Turning Adversity to Advantage.  I think “adversity” is perhaps better semantically of what we want to embrace.  The whole “embracing failure” ethos has become so prevalent now that it has inspired a bunch of detractors arguing that “embracing failure” is a defeatist attitude that just fosters more pain and disappointment.  That’s why I think “adversity” is a better descriptor.  “Adversity” implies more of an outside force, while “failure” implies more of a personal agency.  We don’t want people to go out and seek failure.  We want them to embrace it, aka adversity, when it is thrust upon them.

Aytekin Tank article “How the world’s most successful founders approach failure” notes, “As VC Bruno Bowden told the Guardian, investors only tolerate failure up to a point: ‘You won’t get funding unless you’re credible,’ he says. ‘One previous failure can be OK, but multiple failures will make it impossible to get funding’.” He draws the distinction between

  • Productive failures – These errors taught me a great deal about software development, entrepreneurship, and myself. In some cases, they even served as catalysts for future success.
  • Unnecessary failures – Sadly, these mistakes could have been avoided with greater planning, research, and guidance.

Harvard Business Review examines this distinction in their article “When You Should Worry About Failure, and When You Shouldn’t” where is counsels to avoid the type of failure it calls “systemic failure” (or what the chart above alludes to as “Being a Failure”. Such failures are characterized by the following challenges:

  1. Short-term pressures versus long-term goals – You constantly avoid short-term failure at the expense of long term success.
  2. Environments that are hostile to our goals: This challenge is similar to “short-term pressures” but more about distractions and hygiene factors that get in the way of execution (as opposed to the pressures of objectives which get in the way of direction).
  3. Working for too long: Actually, a specific instance of the “environment” problem big enough in and of itself to call out separately.

Seth Godin also focuses on the newness of failure in his post “When will we learn?” You should not just use failure to innovate, but you should also be innovating new ways to fail. To him, HBR’s “systemic” failure is just failing over and over again in the same manner:

  • It’s essential that we make new mistakes. We don’t make nearly enough of them. Not enough original effort, not enough generous intent, not enough daring in search of something better. But at the same time, we need to stop making the old mistakes again and again. What did you expect to happen when you did the very same thing that didn’t work last time? For some of us, it’s more frightening to do something new than it is to retry something that failed.”