Concerning The Relative Stickiness Of Success And Failure

It’s often the case that the hardest things to get motivated to do are those with a very speculative chance of success.  If you put in a lot of time at the gym, you’re going to get in better shape.  If you spend time cooking, you’ll probably have some reasonable to eat at the end.  If you work hard at your job, there’s at least a pretty good chance that you’ll be rewarded for it.  For all those activities, there’s a straightforward and somewhat predictable correlation between effort and results.

Other endeavors, however, are far messier.  If you start a business, it’s likely you’ll spend a huge amount of time and end up failing.  If you really commit to a relationship, there’s always a chance that you’ll invest a ton and come away with nothing.  And the same generally holds true for most software projects, where it’s likely that you’ll build something only to find no one use it.  The amount of effort required to build a programming language, for example, is astronomical, yet the expected number of users for any new language essentially rounds to zero.

So how does one go about getting motivated to undertake an effort that’s likely to end in failure?  Well obviously, you have to be willing to fail, but how do you go about that?  At least one technique I’ve found is to focus on the fact that success is stickier than failure.

What does that mean exactly?  That means that success tends to last a while, but that failure is almost always temporary (and if it’s not . . . well, then you have a different set of tradeoffs to consider).  It might take you three or five tries to start a successful business; so what?  A successful business can last for decades, potentially.  Your heart gets broken; so what?  If you keep trying, odds are good that some day you’ll end up in a stable, long-term relationship.  No one uses your open-source project, or the product managers don’t like how you’ve implemented a feature.  So what?  You figure out why not and try again, or perhaps you’ll find some existing project to devote your energies to instead.  Eventually, chances are you’ll hit on something worthwhile, and that project will stick around for a long time and deliver more than enough utility to compensate for the effort seemingly wasted on the failed efforts.

Of course, that theory only works if the cost of failure is mainly the loss of the associated resources; if you’re in a position where trying to force some new internal project on your organization could kill the company if it fails, the set of tradeoffs is a bit different.  But usually that’s not the case; people are usually much more worried about feeling like failures, or about wasting time and resources, or about the way their friends or their family or their managers will react to them if they fail.  But the funny thing is, once you have a success or two, no one really remembers the failures, because they’re so transient when compared to the successes.  No one remembers that it took you three tries to really nail some feature; all they remember is that you nailed it, and that it’s so good that no one has to touch it anymore and you can worry about different things.  And no one remembers all those stupid ideas for internal projects that you’ve had and abandoned over the years, they just remember that one awesome idea that you had that’s become totally indispensable to the company.

Failure is a temporary condition, a mere rest stop on the way to success.

4 Comments on “Concerning The Relative Stickiness Of Success And Failure”

  1. carson Gross says:

    Careful of survival bias. Sometime failure is a temporary condition, a mere rest stop on the way to oblivion.


  2. Alan Keefer says:

    I guess I was speaking more in terms of personal successes and failures. Sure, your project might fail and never come back, but your next project might succeed. Your business might fail, but your next business might succeed. Etc.

    The continuity that leads from failure to success resides with the person who’s trying, not with the failed project.

  3. Ian says:

    Insightful. I’m innovating with iPhone apps and web services via many cul-de-sacs. As long as resources permit, I’ll keep trying though and I believe each experience makes my chances of success greater.

  4. David Levine says:

    You’re only as good as the last thing you did. So, after you have that great success, and then that’s over, and you’re on to the next thing, well you could well fail again.

    But I don’t think of these things in terms of success or failure – they’re all part of your life’s work because you should always learn from everything you do, whether “successful” or not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s