Learning from failure? You’re wasting your time

Learn from success instead.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas A. Edison

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill

“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, only this time more wisely.” – Henry Ford

“It is fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” – Bill Gates

There are many many quotations floating around the internet on how you should learn from your failures. And while it’s true in one sense, there are three far more effective and efficient things you should be learning from first. In order:

  1. Other people’s successes. If someone has already achieved what you want to, then it’s much faster to learn from their success, than stumble through your own series of failures.
  2. Your own previous successes. What worked for you in the past, the strengths you brought to solving a problem, the unique way you structured your thinking – all of these are transferrable to new challenges and goals.
  3. Other people’s failures. You don’t need to repeat someone else’s mistakes to learn from them.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t fail. As long as you are pursuing something, failure will occur. It’s inevitable. If you aren’t failing at least some of the time, then you aren’t aiming high enough.

What I am arguing is that dwelling on your failure and analysing your performance for learnings is not a particularly effective way learning. When you fail, you learn just one way not to do something, but, like Edison, there are still 10,000 other ways you could mess up.

Whether you are starting a business, chasing a gold medal, raising a child or trying to set a record, if someone has been down your path before (and chances are they have) it is far better to learn from them. The problem with focusing on learning from your own failures is that it:

  • Takes too long. Using trial and error to find the way to succeed is basically hoping you’ll get lucky and stumble upon the correct approach
  • Can kill your motivation. Spending all that time looking back and feeling miserable about screwing up is not exactly going to put you in the right frame of mind to move forward.
  • Is too internally focused. It is great to improve on your last performance, but everyone around you is also improving. You need to get better than the best competitor, not just better than yourself
  • Ignores all the people who would be willing or able to help. Leaders in any field like to leave a legacy. You’d be surprised how many people are willing to coach you, share some secrets, or give you some guidance. They’ve already achieved what you want to achieve – why not take advantage of the information they’re willing to share
  • It’s embarrassing, and depressing. Nobody likes failing. Why dwell on those feelings more than you have to?

Let’s delve a little deeper into exactly how you should learn from other people’s successes, your own successes, and other people’s failures. We won’t go into learning from your own failures as there have been volumes written about that already.


1) How to learn from other people’s successes

Roger Federer was so dominant in tennis for so long. He has been the world number one for over 300 weeks and won 17 Grand Slam singles titles. At his peak, commentators took his victory as a foregone conclusion and spent their time talking in near raptures about his technique, his mental focus and debating whether he could be called the greatest player of all time. Once Rafael Nadal beat Federer a couple of times, a few years later we saw a whole new generation of tennis players on the world stage with the same playing style as Nadal – aggressive, powerful and fast. They learnt from his success.

What are the things you should pay attention to when learning from the best?

  • What do they do differently from their competitors?
  • What skills and techniques have they mastered?
  • Who do they look to for advice and guidance? What can you learn from those people?
  • What strategies do they use?
  • What physical and mental attributes do they have? Are these innate, or have they developed them?
  • What does their self-talk sound like? How do they think about themselves?
  • What type of mental techniques do they employ?
  • How do they present themselves to the world – attitude, confidence and body language?
  • How much effort do they put in? How often are they practicing? At what intensity?
  • What does the team around them look like? Who supports them?
  • How do they structure their preparation before events?


2) How to learn from your own successes

When we lose there is a natural inclination to assess why. To look at what went wrong and where we didn’t perform to our best. When we win we tend to forget this step and just celebrate. Authors are a great example of this. When they find a winning formula and get a book published they stick to it. Their 2nd, 3rd, 10th and so on books usually follow the same structure just with different characters and settings. The Chinese weightlifters have learnt from the success of a few trainers who spent years not letting their athletes touch heavy weights as they worked purely on mobility and technique. Now they designed their entire national program around the same principles – they learnt from their success and expanded it.

What are the things you should pay attention to when learning from the best?

  • What did I do differently to normal?
  • What did I change in my training and preparation leading up to the event?
  • What specific strategies and tactics were effective?
  • What mood was I in? How did I achieve this particular state of mind?
  • What beliefs and thoughts were going through my mind? How did these enhance my performance?

Importantly, you have to put yourself in your competitor’s shoes. They are going to be assessing what you did and devising a way to beat you next time. You need to be one step ahead. Ask yourself?

  • If someone was coaching my competitors, what would they be saying to them to beat me?
  • What tells do I have that people can look for to predict what I will do? How can I eliminate these?
  • How can I take what worked for me last time and make it even more effective against whatever my competitors come up with next?


3) How to learn from other people’s failures

Since nobody likes to fail, it’s rare that you’ll hear people volunteering to talk in depth about their failures. When you do hear about them it’s usually in the context of a success story. For instance, the story of Walt Disney being fired by a newspaper editor because ‘he lacked imagination and had no good ideas’ or Michael Jordan being cut from his high school basketball team before going on to become the greatest player of all time.

You have to dig deeper to learn from other people’s failures. It’s impolite to rush up to an athlete after they suffer a devastating loss and pepper them with questions. Not to mention you are unlikely to get the truth then anyway. Here are some ways to get to the real lessons:

  • Ask the coaches or the mentors, not the athlete or the performer. They are more likely to be objective about what went wrong
  • Step sideways. Ask people who have failed in a different sport or industry – they won’t be as sensitive about discussing it because you are not as involved in the specifics of their endeavours
  • Look for the ‘domino moment’. The instant in a game where everything proceeded to snowball downhill from there. What triggered it?
  • Look for the aggregation of small failures. Our brains like the simplicity of attributing failure to one single thing. But often failure is the result of an aggregation of tiny things – individually they have little impact but together they disrupt performance
  • Investigate where an athlete failed to take responsibility. What did they attribute to luck, their competitors skill, the weather or anything else external that could have been addressed if they were more prepared?


To achieve anything great you will fail. But using the strategies above you can fail less often, less spectacularly, and less painfully. Rather than basing your decisions on learning purely from your own failures, you have all the learnings from other people’s successes, your successes, and other people’s failures to access too. Only after analysing these three things, should you focus on learning from your own failures.



December 4, 2016