Let’s Hear It For the Losers

by Cameron Schaefer on July 14, 2008

As I mentioned several weeks ago, I have been thinking a lot about failure.  Why are most of us so afraid of it?  How does it really impact our lives?  How do some types of failure impact us more than others?  And why don’t we discuss it as much as we do success?

Failure happens all around us. As British economist Paul Ormerod points out in his book, “Why Most Things Fail,” failure impacts every area of life.

Failure is pervasive.  Failure is everywhere, across time, across place and across different aspects of life.  Ninety-nine point nine nine per cent of all biological species which have ever existed are now extinct…On a dramatically shorter timescale, more than 10 per cent of all the companies in America disappear each year.  Large and small, from corporate giants to the tiniest one-person business, they fail.

But, most of the time we would rather focus our attention on the winners.  Think of how many books on the business shelf at Barnes & Noble highlight companies, investors and products that are succeeding; each book offering ten easy steps to replicate their incredible path of victory whether or not they are accurate or even relevant.

It’s understandable.  Winners make us feel good and feed the fire of our hopes and dreams as we attempt to learn their secrets and imitate their actions.  And talking about failing, well, it’s just depressing.  The simple act of reading this post will probably cause some uber-positivity bloggers to commit hara-kiri.

Yet, when we dismiss the losers and focus all our study on the winners, we are missing out on an incredibly rich source of information and wisdom–the very wisdom necessary to avoid making the exact same mistakes in our own lives AND the wisdom that is often more relevant and applicable than the “10 Easy Steps” path to success.

What did the guy learn who came in second place, or last for that matter?  Do you really know what caused the collapse of Enron or are you guessing?  What were the steps in the chain that led to the Challenger and Columbia disasters?  Why did your Grandfather end up broke and living off welfare?  These are questions we need to be asking.

The key to all of these questions is realizing that they could happen to any of us…unless we learn from them.  No one wakes up one day and says, “Today, I plan on completely failing!  I’m going to cheat on my wife, then run my business into bankruptcy so one day I can be a homeless alcoholic begging for food outside of McDonalds.”  I’m not suggesting we quit studying success stories altogether, but failure is much sneakier than it’s counterpart.

Failure is insidious by nature, no one expects it will happen to them and therein lies its power.

Lieutenant General (Ret.) Hal Moore, the heroic commander portrayed by Mel Gibson in the movie “We Were Soldiers,” understood this principle well. In one of my favorite scenes, Moore is reading late at night in his study about what else?  Failure.  Specifically, the bloody defeat of the French at the hands of the Viet Minh, quickening the end of French rule in Indochina.  Moore knew he would soon be neck deep in the Vietnam conflict and the lessons learned from the French failure would be of great value to him as he led his men into a similar environment.

At multiple points throughout the conflict, Moore has flashbacks to his previous studies and makes decisions based on what he had learned.  In doing so he ensured that him and his men would not suffer the same fate as the French.  Moore had already seen failure through the eyes of the French commanders a decade earlier, so he had no need to see it himself.

Failure is always the result of something else. If you look at almost every famous failure throughout history you will see a chain of seemingly insignificant events, a destruction chain that had may chances of being broken along the way, but ultimately grew unchecked until judgment day.

Check out some of the factors at play in the Columbia disaster which killed 7 astronauts, destroyed $4billion of spacecraft and left debris scattered over 2000 sq miles of Texas:

From the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, see full presentation here

Physical Factors:

  • Insulating foam separates from external tank 81 seconds after lift-off
  • Foam strikes underside of left wing, breaches thermal protection system (TPS) tiles
  • Superheated air enters wing during re-entry, melting aluminum struts
  • Aerodynamic stresses destroy weakened wing

Flawed Decision Process:

  • Foam strike detected in launch videos on Day 2
  • Engineers requested inspection by crew or remote photo imagery to check for damage
  • Mission managers discounted foam strike significance
  • No actions were taken to confirm shuttle integrity or prepare contingency plans

You may be asking, “Why did the mission managers not feel the foam strike was a significant enough issue to warrant a new plan?”

Easy, foam shedding had come to be viewed as normal because it had occurred on so many missions before.  This in spite of the fact that a Ground System manual stated, “…No debris shall emanate from the critical zone of the External Tank on the launch pad or during ascent…” The unspoken doctrine became, “Foam shedding hasn’t hurt us before, so why should we expect it to in the future.”

All this and we haven’t even looked at the issues with budget cuts and haphazard safety inspections.  What am I getting at?  The Columbia disaster did not happen on re-entry, it happened over many years as deviations became normalized and a culture was produced that viewed non-failure as success. The disaster chain could have been broken many times along the way, but it was not.

By studying why things fail we get a chance to see our own flaws, weaknesses and blind spots before they become a long and complex destruction chain.  If we can do this we then free ourselves to focus on the intricacies of success in a much more realistic context.

Failure happens whether we like it or not.  Those who deny it’s existence and pretend that happy thoughts and a few self-help books will give them a free ticket to success soon discover that we live in a fallen world.  By confronting and studying failure at every step we don’t fall victim to it as easily.  And if we’re thinking about it and planning accordingly, it ceases to have the same power over us.  So, one last time, let’s hear it for the losers.


Why Most Things Fail” by Paul Ormerod

Lessons Learned From the Columbia Disaster, “Safety & Organizational Culture” American Institute of Chemical Engineers.  2005

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Billy Chia July 14, 2008 at 7:18 am

“[Failure] happened over many years as deviations became normalized and a culture was produced that viewed non-failure as success.”

That’s a powerful statement that’s universal in truth.

Akshay Kapur July 14, 2008 at 8:18 am

An e-commerce professor told me once, “it’s the process dummy”. He really hated our results-only culture because when analyzed from the scope of failure, our obsession with getting there and not how we get there was always the culprit. I became a means guy instantly and while that’s balanced out a bit over the years, it really helps me track my failure points specifically.

I like to chart processes in my head and on paper, whether they be work or personal related (think how to get the maximum # of patients screened for a disease or what may have led to a major argument in your r’ship). Too often, results are lucky things that we’re credited for and we can’t repeat our success because we haven’t examined how we got there, and more importantly at what points we could have failed.

Failure is definitely a key item in self-examination. Great post!

Cameron Schaefer July 14, 2008 at 8:23 am

@ Billy,

I agree, it isn’t just a NASA problem, it happens everyday in organizations big and small. Just knowing it exists is a huge help in making sure it doesn’t happen to you.

@ Akshay,

I would think that examining failure would be a huge part of health care. Not making a wise crack, I just mean that there are so many variables when it comes to someone’s health that unless you chart the process like you said there’s a good chance you could never replicate a success.

Great point, hadn’t thought about it before, but the more variables the more there is a need to examine the process or risk consistent failure.

caile July 14, 2008 at 8:54 am

insightful and well-written ~ and very relevant in our success-driven society.


Greg M July 14, 2008 at 10:20 am

Excellent post and you really hammer your point home with the analysis of the Columbia disaster. The point about non-failure is almost never discussed or fully understood in our culture. This can mistakenly lead to the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it mentality”. It should almost be added as a third category into all analysis of our initiatives – Success vs. Failure vs. Non-Failure

Cameron Schaefer July 14, 2008 at 10:56 am

@ Caile,

Thanks, glad you liked it!

@ Greg M,

Had never thought about it as a third category, but it really does make sense. Non-failure is such an interesting phenomenon because it seems to slide through untouched by most of our analysis. If it can happen to NASA, I think it’s safe to say it can happen to anyone.

Ankesh Kothari July 14, 2008 at 11:23 am

Good post Cameron!

One of my fav quotes is: Fools learn from experience. Sages learn from history.

Learn from other peoples failures and you’ll have to fail less often.

Focus on the extreme scenarios (extreme successes and extreme failures) and you’ll get the widest perspective possible!

Ruth Taylor July 14, 2008 at 3:53 pm

A very worthwhile post. I wish when I were young that I had had such wisdom as to study the mistakes and failures of others so as to not have made so many myself. Thank you, Cameron. You are SO WISE.!! May you experience MUCH SUCCESS.!

Al at 7P July 14, 2008 at 6:32 pm

Hi Cameron, great post. I think I understand your point. Progress can be made if we were less afraid of failure and be willing to use it to grow from it.

I really like that point. It seems that failure can be a *positive* thing if we can learn from them, but otherwise, it will eventually lead to a negative impact. Denying failure won’t make it go away, so we can choose to let it erode us or enhance us.

Cameron Schaefer July 15, 2008 at 9:31 am

@ Ankesh,

Great quote, I completely agree. Although in some matters I think it’s best to experience it first hand simply to realize that you can fail, pick yourself up and press on. For big things though, better to learn from history.

@ Ruth,

Thank you for all the kind words, appreciate it very much!

@ Al at 7P,

I love your last sentence, “Denying failure won’t make it go away, so we can choose to let it erode us or enhance us.” The reality is we all fail on some level everyday. It can either work to our good or to our bad depending on how we react.

Michael Henreckson July 15, 2008 at 3:37 pm

I blogged about failure myself a couple months ago. I find that I’m so scared of failing that I frequently avoid getting involved with things where I might fail. The chances are that I’m missing some pretty good learning experiences.

I think I’m going to pass on designing space shuttles though. I know I’d fail at that, and the cost probably wouldn’t be worth the lessons for me. :)

John at Hella Sound July 15, 2008 at 11:48 pm

In software development we talked about failure during the “post-mortem” for each project. A good project manager should ask the group what went right, but they should also ask what went wrong.

This was a critical part of each development project, and I think we were able to learn and progress every time we identified an issue. But I agree, the idea of “failure” frequently wasn’t explored in a larger context.

In the workplace, I think there’s this ingrained desire to minimize the perception of your own failures–do damage control. Peers don’t want to bring up or discuss your failures out of courtesy or politics; they don’t want to get on your bad side. Superiors are hesitant to dig into the details of your failures because there’s the perception that this could have a negative impact on morale. They don’t want to unnecessarily beat up on their reports, and will brush it under the rug as long as it’s agreed the offender “knew what they did wrong”, and will avoid the same mistakes in the future.

At the root of all this is the idea that mistakes are bad things that should be avoided and not discussed–by the failing person, as well as everyone surrounding them. Accepting–even embracing failure–would be a revolutionary thing in the culture of a group, a company, etc. But there’s a lot of cultural implications of “failure” that’d have to be overcome first.

Great post Cameron.

Cameron Schaefer July 17, 2008 at 9:56 am

@ Michael,

Good to see that I’m not the only one that thinks the subject of failure is fascinating! It’s so true that failure is hardest on perfectionists, many go through life making their sole aim not to fail or be embarrassed…really sad.

@ John,

One of the most insightful comments I’ve read in quite sometime. I think you hit the nail on the head with your assessment of the cultural implications of failure, especially in the workplace. Great insight!

Derek Ralston July 18, 2008 at 7:10 pm

Very useful post- I agree that we need to take a realistic look at failure and not deny it. Reminds me of Seth Godin’s book The Dip… What many people interpret as failure at a new endeavor is simply a short-term dip in the results they are seeing. If more people just stuck with it, and looked at mistakes as a learning experience, they would eventually start seeing results.

I’ve added “Why Most Things Fail” to my book list for future reading.

Cameron Schaefer July 19, 2008 at 4:42 pm

@ Derek,

I’m glad to have someone call a post of mine useful! Thank you! That’s really the aim behind much of my blogging. I want it to be content that people can take, chew on and apply in their own lives.

I have not read “The Dip” yet, but it is on my Amazon wishlist so I will definitely have to give it a read. Very interesting point though! You can read “Why Most Things Fail” and I’ll read “The Dip” then we can leave some more comments on each other’s blogs, haha!

Checked out your blog by the way and really think you have some great content!

Evelyn Lim | Attraction Mind Map July 21, 2008 at 11:39 pm

It’s so true that we can learn a lot of key lessons from our failures. Unfortunately, most of us prefer not to look at them; for we fear criticisms and embarrassment. If anything, Thomas Edison failed more than 10,000 times before he got the light bulb working!


Mike Bates July 22, 2008 at 7:51 am

Craig, I tracked back here from Art of Manliness and am really enjoying your blog. This post is terribly interesting. Of course, we internalize success stories, because we hear them all the time. I love how you advocate looking for the underlying causes of failure, rather than the event itself. Have you read Jeff Diamond’s book, Collapse? He comes to a similar conclusion about failed civilizations. His chapter on Easter Island was particularly relevant to your discussion. Anyway, great work. I think site is becoming a must-read for me.

Cameron Schaefer July 22, 2008 at 10:27 am

@ Evelyn,

Edison is such a great example, just think where we would be if he would have given up at 9,999.

@ Mike,

So glad you came over from AoM, such a great blog! Welcome! I have not read Collapse yet, but it’s sitting on my bookshelf…so now I just might have to.

Ben July 23, 2008 at 10:41 pm

Failure is the best learning tool one has – if one can analyse their own failures without allowing negative self-talk to paralyse them from further attempts. I have some habits that I had wanted to change for more years than I care to remember. Once I started analysing why I failed and what I could try the next time around, I have been really successful.

When I used to play baseball, at a recreational level, my swing became really bad one season. With a break between seasons I worked out where I was failing and worked out a change to my batting stance. During the next season my power returned and I starting hitting to all fields instead of just being a pull hitter. I also learnt that outs weren’t failures, they were an opportunity to know the pitcher’s stuff for my next at bat.

I think that reasons & causes for failure are used by some organisations as a tool for improvement – it’s only subsequent success that is focused upon.

Thanks for some thought provoking writing.


Darryl July 26, 2008 at 9:12 pm

Well written. Both Challenger and Columbia Disasters were caused by the exact same attitude that permeated NASA executives. They wanted results no matter the cost, And look what happened. 2 destroyed shuttles and countless lives lost. When will people learn? “If we don’t learn from our failures, we are doomed to repeat them.”

Brad Spencer July 30, 2008 at 8:48 am

Yet, when we dismiss the losers and focus all our study on the winners, we are missing out on an incredibly rich source of information and wisdom–the very wisdom necessary to avoid making the exact same mistakes in our own lives AND the wisdom that is often more relevant and applicable than the “10 Easy Steps” path to success.

This section resonated with me quite strongly. I notice this all the time in the self-improvement arena. Knowing what didn’t work is just as important (arguably more so) as knowing what did.

It’s BECAUSE of failure that so many are successful. Plain and simple.

Great post and thanks for looking at the other side of the coin!


Brad Spencer

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