Treat Failure Like a Scientist

I recently had a wonderful conversation with my friend, Beck Tench. During our chat, Beck told me about an interesting shift in thinking that occurred while she worked at a science museum.

During her time there, Beck said that she learned how to treat failure like a scientist.

How does a scientist treat failure? And what can we learn from their approach?

Here’s what Beck taught me…

Treat Failure Like a Scientist

When a scientist runs an experiment, there are all sorts of results that could happen. Some results are positive and some are negative, but all of them are data points. Each result is a piece of data that can ultimately lead to an answer.

And that’s exactly how a scientist treats failure: as another data point.

This is much different than how society often talks about failure. For most of us, failure feels like an indication of who we are as a person.

Failing a test means you’re not smart enough. Failing to get fit means you’re undesirable. Failing in business means you don’t have what it takes. Failing at art means you’re not creative. And so on.

But for the scientist, a negative result is not an indication that they are a bad scientist. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Proving a hypothesis wrong is often just as useful as proving it right because you learned something along the way.

Your failures are simply data points that can help lead you to the right answer.

Failure is the Cost You Pay to be Right

None of this is to say that you should seek to make mistakes or that failing is fun. Obviously, you’ll try to do things the right way. And failing on something that is important to you is never fun.

But failure will always be part of your growth for one simple reason…

If you’re focused on building a new habit or learning a new skill or mastering a craft of any type, then you’re basically experimenting in one way or another. And if you run enough experiments, then sometimes you’re going to get a negative result.

It happens to every scientist and it will happen to you and me as well. To paraphrase Seth Godin: Failure is simply a cost you have to pay on the way to being right.

Treat failure like a scientist. Your failures are not you. Your successes are not you. They are simply data points that help guide the next experiment.

Thanks again to Beck for inspiring this post!

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23 Comments

  1. A unique approach to this, it’s just sometimes we tend to ignore how much we can learn by not burring our failures but get inspired by them.

    Thanks for nice share James.

  2. Great short article, just what I needed. “Failure as data point” is easy to remember, encouraging for more trials.

    I consider myself lucky, not having too much failures in the past, but now as in a new society and culture after moving Down Under I am having a bad streak. Heads up, more experiments here I come. :)

    Thank you, James.

  3. See writing by the FT’s Tim Harford on the importance of failing, and his book, “Adapt: why success always starts with failure”.

  4. THANKS! O MY G-O-S-H ! This is so refreshing. HINT: if you arent on Instagram you should be. That quote from Seth Godin will get sooooo much attention and RePost. And all biz people would love to follow you and sign up for the articles. And also to REPOST all of your quotes from all over the place. You always have good quotes from great people.

    I had a salon it almost made 3years, I had to sell it for many reasons. I felt like I failed at first, then I started to blame and point fingers at everybody. Then I realized after a few weeks of selling it, that it wasnt thier fault. I should have let them go long time ago, I should have done this, I should have done that. Then I realized one day: I failed in the eyes of them and society but in reality I LEARNED what NOT to do for the next project I face. So yes reading this made so much sense! so much more clarity. This is why I read your articles. It makes me understand and digest ME! THANK YOU!

  5. I am a foreign teacher living in China where failure is inevitably linked to losing face one way or the other. When I teach my students, I constantly emphasize that failure is an event, not a person (Zig Ziglar) and that FAIL in my dictionary merely means First Attempt In Learning. In this way a lot of tension goes away and real learning by doing can take place in a far more relaxed atmosphere.

  6. Your words are wise and true. I only wish I could remember this when I’m struggling with my current project and I feel like it’s kicking my butt and that I will always be a failure and that I will never succeed. Just had one of those kind of work sessions! I should tell myself “treat failure like a scientist” often enough that I will believe it when I’m in the trenches. Thanks for your encouragement!

  7. Thanks for the refreshing look on failure. I am actually looking forward to my next failure — sorry data point — so that I can fully experience my life experiment!

  8. Reading your post reminded me of my recent thought.

    Can we accept the possibility that we will possibly not be successful in life?

    We are a society of outcomes. The problem with how we think of outcome is that we label things with “success” and “failures” and we think that a good life is a life that we will succeed in the end.

    What if we don’t? What if there’s no happy ending for everyone?

    I guess to cull the labels we need to accept success and failure equally. Most of the time we can’t control the outcome but we can control what we do to achieve. And if we die someday with no successes on our belt, I guess we can find solace in the process of living and the things we valiantly try to achieve it.

  9. What a waste of my time!

    You never even mentioned how scientists get treated.

    Did you expect me to simply KNOW this? ; )

    Great stuff!

    • Besides being a smart ass i thought it might be worth mentioning that not only should we try and figure out why we failed, but also try and see if their were any GOOD results from our failed attempts.

      Many times a failure can be a happy accident in disguise.

  10. Agree Wan. Finding more and more bloggers posting uber positive messages (James Altucher perfect example) — of things we all want to hear. Fairy tales to gain more readers. Using their own narcissism as examples (failure to success stories). Life *is* unfair. Though I appreciate such feel good notions and agree we do (in the US anyway) have choices, even if just the choice of reaction or response.

    • Hi Mary. Thanks for reading. Hopefully I don’t fall into that category of bloggers posting narcissistic tales in hopes of gaining more readers!

    • Haha thanks for reading my comment.

      I like bloggers like James here and other personal development bloggers (eg. Amit Amin) who provide practical ideas to improve lives and not just personal tale of triumph. They inspire you and at the same time they guide you on how to really improve life.

      Narcissistic tales?

      Haha it can either be narcissistic or just an effort by the writer to convince people that it’s possible to improve ourself.

  11. The scientific method never proves anything right. It can prove a hypothesis wrong, and that is what guides the design of an experiment. A negative result reveals that you need to change your hypothesis, and devise a model that explains all of the data, including your most recent failure. In this way, you learn more from a negative result than a positive result, and it pushes you to develop a stronger hypothesis that is closer to the truth.

    In the context of something like trying to build a new habit, let’s say you make an attempt and it doesn’t stick. That’s great! What didn’t work with the last attempt, and what should you change on the next attempt that might be more successful?

  12. I don’t agree with this analogy. You cannot fail an experiment the way it was mentioned in the post. Proving a hypothesis wrong isn’t failure, it’s a success. I would like to see how a scientist would deal with really failing an experiment, i.e. if he mixed more of one acid then he should have, and caused a disaster. That would be a real failure. If you do an experiment, and the outcome isn’t what you predicted, I don’t think that is a failure. Maybe that’s the point, not getting what you want, but again that would drive any scientist mad.

    Sorry for posting this negative feedback. I would like to add that I like and agree with all of the posts you made so far, but this one didn’t go well with my thoughts and being in the mentioned profession I had to express what’s on my mind.

  13. As a scientist and engineer in an R&D position, I can’t agree with this sentiment enough. At work, so many times we try something we are convinced is going to work and solve a problem we’ve been having and so many times we are wrong. But every time we do run an experiment, we go in with the strategy of making sure that we will learn something either way. Either we fix what we are looking to fix, or we learn more about why it’s not working and use that to guide our next experiment.

    I didn’t realize how much I applied this way of thinking to my life until you mentioned it here. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Amazing knowledge just like always.

    I’ve always thought of failure as an experiment. However, I’m wondering if you use a framework that to run those experiments and iterate fast?

    You answer is very much appreciated.

  15. This is a really good perspective to have and something that I haven’t been keeping in mind lately. My new job requires me to engaging and always on my toes in ways that I am not so used to doing. It’s a wonderful opportunity for growth, but I bum myself out whenever I confuse my failures with who I am. Thanks for the reminder!

  16. Great, short, and simple article James :) Its to-the-point and direct to say the notion “like a scientist”. A scientist isn’t doing experiments to show off, he is simply seeking the “truth”. No matter how that truth comes or after what kind of effort, tbouvht, study, or tial and error. Its a great way to approach life indeed. However it’s amazing how societies make a lot of deama instead!

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