Failure is a part of all of our lives even when we give our best effort. Promising businesses often fail, professional athletes miss their shots, and star students get questions wrong. You can turn this frustrating but consistent part of life into an asset by learning from failure.
A resilient mindset and a commitment to lifelong learning can turn our mistakes into valuable lessons. These tools are easy to build when you know that failure isn’t unique to your life. Scientific research offers a glimpse into how we can learn from failures.
The Science of Learning from Failure
Researchers at Northwestern University studied decades of grant applications and startup investments to determine if failure is predictable. A testing model found that ultimate successes and failures required similar numbers of attempts. If every failure doesn’t lead to success, what are the variables at play?
The study published in Nature found that success stories kept what worked and removed unsuccessful components. The model also determined that ultimate success was achieved when applicants and investors had failures in quick succession. In short, successful people failed fast but were critical enough to separate good components from bad.
We are conditioned in our early lives to view success and failure as opposites. Our greatest lessons - learning to walk and speak, relating to others, choosing careers - combine success and failure. The question “What can you learn from failure?” is a valuable tool in centring our attention on this balance.
What Can You Learn from Failure?
Successful people and organisations start by answering how failure can be turned into success. A clear and repeatable process reduces avoidable mistakes while extracting valuable insights. Google developed a process for learning from failures through project postmortems that includes:
- Encouraging blameless and construction feedback
- Focusing on improvement and resilience
- Promoting an iterative and collaborative process
Learning from failure requires an accurate assessment of your resources and goals. A series of mistakes might expose a shortage of funds for your business or credentials on your resume. This assessment makes future failures more valuable, thus bringing sustained success within reach.
You need to be open enough to recognize when you need help from others following mistakes. Your colleagues, friends, and family are valuable resources in identifying opportunities from failures. Russ Kliman - the Head of SEI Ventures - highlights the value of humility:
“First and foremost, to be successful you need to be open to the fact that the way you see things, the way you might want to approach something, or the way something has worked previously might not be the best way to set yourself up for success in a given situation.”
Success Stories Built on Failure’s Lessons
The learning process extends beyond examining our own mistakes. We can learn a lot from the trial-and-error examples offered by successful people. Here are a few examples of innovators who found success after learning from failure.
James Dyson was inspired by wood waste removal in sawmills when he conceived of his namesake vacuum. Dyson required 5,127 versions of a prototype vacuum before developing a model that would become a hit in Japan. The brand has grown into a multi-billion pound company after decades of iteration.
Dyson encourages designers to be bold with a foundation and award dedicated to new inventions. He explained his views on learning from failure in an interview with Entrepreneur:
“I started out with a simple idea, and by the end, it got more audacious and interesting. I got to a place I never could have imagined because I learned what worked and didn't work.”
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has become a familiar face to anyone following the tech sector since the 1980s. His fame and fortune were not accrued without high-profile errors that produced difficult lessons. Entrepreneur highlighted some of these challenges including:
- The failure of pre-Microsoft startup Traf-O-Data
- Google passing Microsoft in the search engine race
- Investing in competitor Apple in 1997 when it was near bankruptcy
Gates approached these failures and others as important learning opportunities. A programmer by trade, he was used to testing and fixing errors in products before they hit the market. He offered the following thoughts on learning from failure in Business @ the Speed of Thought:
“...once you embrace unpleasant news not as negative but as evidence of a need for change, you aren’t defeated by it. You’re learning from it. It’s all in how you approach failures.”
Fuelling Success with Lifelong Education
Our desire for innovation, change, and reinvention doesn’t end with one success. Lifelong learning builds new skills that turn future failures into successes. Aston University Online encourages professionals to build for the future with their virtual graduate programmes.
Learning from failure is easier with a knowledgeable support network behind your decisions. Experienced faculty, a global alumni network, and Admissions Advisors help students level up their careers with degrees including:
- Master of Business Administration
- Master of Science in Business Analytics
- Master of Science in Business & Management
You want to learn from the best as you grow in your professional life. Aston University has been recognised as a global leader in higher education including the University of the Year in The Guardian’s University Guide 2021. The university also places high in rankings like its 47th place in the Complete University Guide 2022.