On Failure, Success, and Learning

When I was a kid, I decided to invent a new kind of battery. I had a pretty good idea of what was required, having cut open my share of batteries and even built them with a lemon, copper, and zinc. It’s just a matter of two metals (or one metal plus carbon) and a corrosive liquid. How hard could it be to create the battery of the future?

I mentioned my aspirations to my father, who was a chemistry professor. “What do you know about valence?” he asked.

“What’s ‘valence’?”

He proceeded to explain about electron clouds and the tendency of atoms to fill or empty their outer ring of electrons.

“So the valence of oxygen is 2.”

“Yes, except when it’s 1 or 4 or 6 or some other value. It’s not always simple.”

I’ve been thinking about that conversation since the end of the Agile 2011 Conference. Kevlin Henney gave a great keynote talk about, among other things, learning about code by reading successful code. “We’re not wired up to learn from failure.

Yes, that’s absolutely right.

Then Linda Rising gave her keynote (which I unfortunately missed, having to leave for the airport) where where exhorted us to learn from failure. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better! – Samuel Beckett

Yes, that’s true, too. How can I agree with two seemingly contradictory points?

That’s what made me think about my plans to invent the next-generation battery. Had I continued with those plans, I could have tried 10,000 combinations and been no nearer to success than when I started.

Yet Thomas Edison did invent a successful light bulb. After many failures, he was reported to say, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” If that was all he knew, then he’d have been little better off than I was with my battery. In fact, he’d learned more than he admitted.

During the course of those 10,000 experiments, he built up a model of what was needed and how various materials did and did not fit that model and supply those needs. If we’re paying attention and are very persistent, we can learn from most series of failures as long as each attempt varies from the others.
It’s just not very efficient that way.

We can turn a series of failures into a string of successes quite simply. Instead of expecting each attempt to produce a working light bulb or battery or whatever it is we want, expect each attempt to be an experiment that will teach us something and refine our model. A successful experiment is one that teaches, whether or not it confirms our expectations.

Looking at it that way, we’ll want to design better experiments to maximize the learning rather than trying to minimize the number of trials. This is the heart of “Fail better!”


Categories: Responding to Change


6 Replies to “On Failure, Success, and Learning”

  1. This sounds like one of the best arguments I’ve heard in a while for why teaching basic science in schools is critically important. “Failure” can be a self-taught learner’s best teacher.

  2. When things are outside of your control or you are under extreme time pressures (or other stresses), it can be difficult to adopt an “I can learn from failure this mindset.” Especially when we can’t control all the variables. Edison had time, persistence, and a deeply inquisitive (obsessive?) mindset on his side. I think we can adapt a “learn from failures” mindset when we let go of our urge to be in control of the situation all the time. Something that can be difficult in some work environments.

  3. the other lesson is that any experimentation needs to be documented rigourously. – otherwise you could be experimenting 10,000 times with what are effectively only 100 versions. i.e. scientific discipline is fundamental.

    i am guessing that many of edison’s failures had aspects which did prove to be successful or useful – contributing to the ‘one’ complete product that worked.

  4. My conclusion is that properties (in your battery experiments, valence) of which you are not even aware are the important facets that could inform your failures. Ignorance of these properties ensures failure again (unless pure chance intercedes).

    In our realm we must know our element properties so we may correlate them to our observations when failure occurs.

    Like asking a chemistry professor to list the chemical properties one must know before building the battery of the future, it is a comic picture to imagine a novice asking the applications architect what must be considered when designing and building world-class applications.

    If you fail and don’t know your system properties (all of them), what confidence could you have that you will find the fault in your failure?

    Experience helps us avoid failure. Failure is what gives us experience.

    As the fellow says in “The Music Man,”
    “But ya gotta know the territory!”

  5. I also notice when I learn through success, I can get arrogant that I know more than how to succeed in that circumstance.

    We learn fundamentally, and we learn specifically. In too many cases I have seen really smart folks with specific knowledge fail to apply it to some other situation… they are a “one-trick pony”, but they don’t know it.

    Learning requires adaptation, and the more fundamentally we have to shift our thinking, the more uncomfortable it can be. So the first move is often to learn specifically… but we want to apply that learning fundamentally without the additional investment.

    Failure is one way to show us what _doesn’t_ work… there are all sort of other things we can try, like Edison. At the end of it all, we might learn something fundamentally… and then we can apply it in many, many other situations.

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