Listen in as I take a step back from focusing on the stories and emotions, and instead, look at the science behind turning failure into success and how you can apply it in real life.
In this episode, I take the concept of Success Through Failure from being “motivational” and “inspirational” and examine it with a more scientific approach.
Some of you (like me!) need to hear not just the emotionally appealing stories, but also the science and the truth behind achieving success despite— and because of— failure.
So if you are one of those people, then this episode is for you.
Of course, we’re not just going to look through a “boring” academic lens, but through real-world learning that applies directly to you and can change your life.
By the end of this episode, you’ll have a single, actionable takeaway that you can apply and put into work so you can turn failure into success. Hit play now!
If you don’t have time to listen to the entire episode or if you hear something that you like but don’t have time to write it down, be sure to grab your free copy of the Action Plan from this episode— as well as get access to action plans from EVERY episode— at JimHarshawJr.com/Action.
Download the Action Plan from This Episode Here
[00:00] Jim Harshaw, Jr.: The lack of persistence will guarantee you fail. If you fail once or twice and you never try again, you are guaranteed to end with a failure. So let's just keep that in perspective, right? If you don't get up and try again, you are guaranteed that you will end with a failure.
[00:19] Welcome to another episode of Success Through Failure, the show for successful people and for those who want to become successful. The only podcast that reveals the true nature of success through conversations with world-class performers, while also sharing my own lessons of success through failure. This is your host, Jim Harshaw Jr. and today I'm bringing you a solo episode.
[00:41] The goal for today's episode is to take success through failure from a motivational, inspirational concept to the actual science and academic approach to success through failure. I'm not talking boring academia-type stuff, but like real-world success through failure learning that applies directly to you and how it can change your life and your thinking around failure.
[01:08] For those of you who are like me and you need the logical side of this stuff too, like the scientifically proven stuff, that's what I'm going to bring to you today, and it's stuff that is being applied often unconsciously by world-class performers, like take Robert O'Neill, interviewed him in episode 342. He's the Navy SEAL from SEAL Team Six who shot and killed Osama Bin Laden. Again, episode 342. You can listen to that conversation where he shares about his journey of becoming a Navy SEAL and actually shooting and killing Osama Bin Laden. Just a crazy conversation with Robert O'Neill in episode 342. Another one, is Keni Thomas, if you like the movie or book Blackhawk Down. Episode 333. He was an Army Ranger, boots on the ground during that whole Battle for Mogadishu. Another one, Leah Amico, she's an Olympic gold medalist, just interviewed her last week, episode 390. These are world-class performers who are leveraging this stuff without even knowing it.
[02:07] So I'm revealing the science behind this and the academic study behind this today. Some of you, like I said, like me, you just need not just to hear the emotionally appealing stories, but also the science and academia, the academic side of this. Again, it's not gonna be boring, this is like really helpful stuff.
[02:25] I break down two different pieces of content, all right, but before I do that, just wanna let you know, stick around to the end because I'm gonna boil both of these down to really one single takeaway that's actionable for you. And the second thing I'm gonna do at the very end is gonna share with you a download that is a worksheet that you can access instantly to start putting what you learned here today to work. All right, so it's a discovery exercise. It's part of what I share with my clients. And you're gonna be able to use this. This is a Success Through Failure worksheet discovery exercise, so you can use this and look at something that you've failed at in the past and how you can use that to create success.
[03:07] Okay. The two pieces of content that I talk about here today are, number one, a research study titled, "Quantifying the dynamics of failure across science, startups and security". It was published in the Journal Nature in October of 2019. The second piece of content I'm gonna break down, it's an article in the Harvard Business Review written by Amy Edmondson it's titled "Strategies for learning from failure", and it was published in April 2011. Two great articles, I'm gonna have them both linked in the Action Plan, so make sure you grab your copy of the Action Plan, go to jimharshawjr.com/action, and you'll get the free PDF for this download that you can burn out, take with you, save to your desktop, whatever it is.
[03:53] And by the way, when you do subscribe, when you go there and you put in your email, y'all gonna email you a link. Make sure you save that link. That link will be updated every single week. Bookmark it so you can come back to it every week. You don't ever have to subscribe again. You can get all of the content right there on that page.
[04:10] Okay. Let's dive into the first one again, this is the research study. It was titled, "Quantifying the dynamics of failure across science, startups and security". So if you've heard me speak recently, you may have heard me talk about this study. This is from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. And by the way, welcome to those of you who are new to the podcast. I've spoken quite a few times recently. One was the Virginia Council of CEOs, with about a hundred CEOs from across Virginia in the room. And then the other one was at Virginia Asset Management, a great firm based in Richmond, Virginia.
[04:46] And if you're new to the podcast, welcome. This is just one of my solo episodes. I alternate these with interview episodes. And for those of you who are not new, if you're looking for a speaker, please reach out. I love speaking, and you can see some of my speaking examples. If you go to jimharshawjr.com/speaking and you'll see some examples there as well as other information, how to get in touch with me about speaking for your organization.
[05:13] Alright, so I'm gonna summarize this research study here that it's really heavy reading and I went through this and actually used ChatGPT to help you simplify some of this stuff because it's written in a statistical language that is way above my head. But I use that and to help me distill this down 'cause this stuff's too big of words for me to really understand, for my simple brain.
[05:39] All right, so what they did, and I've referenced this study quite a few times before in my talks, but I've never really broken it down to this level. Okay? So there are three different things that they studied in this research. Number one was grant applications to the National Institutes of Health that took place between 1985 and 2015. There were almost a million. There were 776,721 grant applications, and they have all the information about the grant applications, and most of those fail but some succeed, right?
[06:15] The second body of research that, or the second sort of data set they looked at was 46 years worth of venture capital startup investments. Okay, 46 years worth of venture capital investments in startups.
[06:29] And the third one was terrorist attacks. There were between 1970 and 2017, there were 170,350 that they studied. Terrorist attacks, all right. Those are the three bodies of data that they looked at.
[06:45] Now, here's what they came up with. The average number of failures before success was, and I'm gonna give you all three, okay? For the NIH, for the grant applications, it was just over two. Two failures before success happened. 2.03. For startups, it was 1.5. 1.5 failures on average before success. And for terrorist groups, it was 3.90 failures. Thankfully, that's a little higher, a lot higher than the other two, but 3.9 failures per success, before success happens. All right, now here are the takeaways. Here's the takeaways that they share in this study, and here are my personal takeaways.
[07:33] Number one, persistence isn't just the main thing. We think that persistence, you gotta be persistent, you gotta get up and keep trying. Every time you get knocked down, you gotta get up again and again. Again, it's not necessarily persistence that determines the winners from the losers. The winners and losers actually, in these studies, in these data sets, actually had approximately the same number of tries, okay. So statistically, that wasn't a differentiator. Like getting up trying again and again wasn't the differentiator.
[08:04] Here's my takeaway that I wanna add to this, though. The lack of persistence will guarantee you fail. If you fail once or twice and you never try again, you are guaranteed to end with a failure. So let's just keep that in perspective, right? If you don't get up and try again, you are guaranteed that you will end with a failure. Okay? So it's not necessarily getting up and trying again will guarantee that you're gonna succeed, but not doing so will guarantee that you'll fail. Okay? That's one big takeaway.
[08:33] Here's another one. Every winner starts as a loser. This is a takeaway from the study itself. Every winner starts as a loser, and so I want you to understand that when you see success, and especially when you see easy success, people who just found success and it came the first try, and sometimes I'm listening to these other podcasts and they interview these amazing people, and I can't relate to them because they're talking about how easy it was for them and they succeeded right out of the gate. That is not the norm. It's not the norm. From my personal experience, from anecdotal experience, as well as in this research. Every winner actually started out as a loser. I'm not gonna say every single one because they don't actually say every single one, but that is one of their takeaways. There's interviews with the researchers out there and that's one of their big takeaways, was the winners start out as losers, and guess what? It's probably you and me too.
[09:31] Quick interruption. If you like what you're hearing here and you want to learn how you can implement this into your life, just go to jimharshawjr.com/apply to see how you can get a free one-on-one coaching session with me. That's jimharshawjr.com/apply. Now, back to the show.
[09:49] All right, the next takeaway from this research. Again, this is the first of two pieces of content I'm breaking down here. Here's another one. Not every loser becomes a winner. Not every loser becomes a winner. Just because you are failing, it doesn't mean success is gonna happen for you. All right, now we have real-life something to chew on here.
[10:09] So here's one of the biggest takeaways for me here, and the researchers share this as well. Just because you lost doesn't mean you're gonna succeed. It's the learning that takes place in between attempts. It's the learning from failure. If you've listened to my episode, I interviewed Tim Ferriss back in episode 246 and 247, and he actually talked about this. He's like, you can go, there are people who fail their entire lives and they never find success. So failure doesn't guarantee you're gonna succeed. It's the learning that has to take place in order for you to move from failure to success.
[10:46] And what they discovered in this research was that it was those who didn't just scrap everything and start over. It was the ones who changed. Not everything, but just certain things, and they tested and tried, and there was learning that took place between attempts. Here's the second big takeaway here. There are key early indicators that they discovered in this research that will determine with high likelihood if this will become a failure or a success, right? If this person will, if they try again, will they succeed or fail? Here's the one big differentiator, and I shared this in the talk if you heard me speak recently. It's the time between attempts. If you get up faster, if you fail faster, you are more likely to succeed. And here's my assumption here, if you try again sooner rather than later, if you get up faster, you are more likely to recall what you did wrong the first time. You are more likely to not make the same mistakes. You are more likely to take that learning that happened in the first time and apply it to the second one. The longer you wait, the more likely you are to fail.
[12:01] Okay, so again, those two big takeaways. I'm gonna wrap this up with the first research, and I'm gonna move into this Harvard Business Review article here in a second. But the biggest takeaways, number one, the learning that takes place between attempts. Did you learn? What did you learn? What are you gonna change? Not scrapping everything, it's starting from scratch, but what are you gonna change? And doing that intelligently. And then number two is minimize the time between attempts. Okay, so those are the two big takeaways. I'm gonna bring this all to a great conclusion at the end. So stick around here because at the end I'm gonna summarize both of these down to one bullet point and then one specific action item for you, this worksheet that you can use.
[12:40] Okay, all right. So that's the summary of the research study titled "Quantifying the dynamics of failure across science" -- that was the NIH grant applications. "Startups," that was the venture-backed companies. And "security," and those were the terrorist attacks.
[12:57] All right, moving to the second one now, "Strategies for learning from failure". This is an article by Amy C. Edmondson in the Harvard Business Review in April 2011. I'm gonna have this article linked in the Action Plan again. And so in this article, Amy talks about, the author talks about three different kinds of failure, and I'm going to share these with you. The three different types that she's identified, moving from bad toward good. Okay. Bad failures to good failures.
[13:27] The first one is a bad failure. A bad failure is this: preventable failures in routine operations. Preventable failure in routine operations. This is bad. What do we mean by that? Here's some examples that I've identified. I don't think these were even in the article, but there's some different ones in the article. You can read that if you'd like, but I'm just trying to break this down for you. This might mean like, poorly-trained staff making mistakes in daily tasks. This might mean lack of proper maintenance. Let's say you're in a manufacturing plant, lack of proper maintenance leading to equipment breakdown. Those are preventable failures in routine operations.
[14:09] What does that mean to you personally? Here's some examples of how that might actually be taking place in your life. It could be procrastination that leads to you missing a deadline. It could mean lack of planning, leading to financial instability, right? You're not setting aside savings, you're making bad investments and not really thinking about your finances or planning. A third one example for your personal life would be making unhealthy lifestyle choices. Smoking or drinking too much, or not working out that leading to health issues. These are preventable failures in day-to-day operations and life. Okay, that was the first. That is bad. Again, we're moving from bad to good there. That was the first of three examples of types of failure.
[14:52] The second one is this: unavoidable failures in complex systems. Okay, unavoidable failures in complex systems. And again, we're moving from bad to good. This one's not quite bad, not quite good. This is unavoidable, right? It's neither bad nor good so much, but some examples would be like an unexpected traffic jam leading to the delay of delivery of goods, right? You're waiting for something from Amazon to show up today, and it doesn't show up today because there's a traffic jam and it doesn't show up on time. Another unavoidable failure in a system would be a supply chain disruption caused by a natural disaster like a hurricane, or a flood, or something like that. Unavoidable failures in complex systems. For you personally, this might mean health issues that are hereditary, or financial instability due to, not your lack of planning like the example I used a minute ago. Unavoidable would be, let's say, an unexpected job loss, right? Your company downsizes or gets acquired and they downsize, or something like that happens. Financial instability due to unexpected job loss. Okay, so this is the second of the three types of failure that Amy Edmondson, the author of this HBR article, shared.
[16:07] This one's neither bad nor good. Like I said, if you adopt the mindset of extreme ownership, you might say you know what? If you didn't plan for that unexpected traffic jam, you failed to plan. Or maybe you have these health issues that are hereditary. Maybe you could have changed your diet or did something differently in your life that would minimize the impact of those hereditary health issues. Okay, so maybe there is some ownership here, but you get the idea about these unavoidable failures and complex systems.
[16:33] Okay, let's go to the third, and this is a good failure and this is what she identified. Intelligent failures at the frontier. Intelligent failures at the frontier. What do we mean by that? This is rapid prototyping and testing of a new product. It means conducting small scale experiments. Again, going back to the Tim Ferriss episode, he talked about short-duration, low-cost experiments. Those are good failures. Failing in entrepreneurship launching some minimum viable products, getting feedback.
[17:08] What are some examples of this third type of failure, this intelligent failures at the frontier for your personal life? This would mean testing out a new workout plan. Maybe it's F3, like I like to do. Maybe it's Peloton or pickleball, right? Kathleen Trotter, who I interviewed in episode 347, talks about finding your fit, and these are intelligent failures at the frontier. These are intelligent failures that you can use for yourself.
[17:36] Another example would be trying new formats of date nights for you and your significant other or your spouse. Maybe it's a new restaurant, or instead of doing a dinner date you do a breakfast date, or maybe it's working out together. Those are different types of intelligent failures. You can try things. Maybe they work, maybe they don't, but you're learning from this.
[17:53] Another example might be just new meal options when you get hungry in the late afternoon. I'm bringing this up because this is a real-life example in my life. Even just a few weeks ago I'd eat nothing for breakfast. I'd do intermittent fasting and have bulletproof coffee for breakfast, and for lunch I would've a big salad. And I still do that. But in the afternoon, early afternoon, I get starving and I start just crushing whatever's in front of me. And I'm like, wait, let me just think about this. Let me try some different things. And I've tried some different things and I was eating garbage, and it would give me a carbohydrate rush and crash. But now I've tested a few things and I've settled on celery with peanut butter and cottage cheese with vanilla yogurt. That's what I do, and I feel better. So these were new meal options.
[18:36] These are things that I tried. These were intelligent failures, and those worked for me and created success. Now, the author argues that a lot of companies talk about the value of failure, but they don't really do anything about it. And even those who do something about it, like those who study it, don't actually take action on what was learned. Why? Because of blame. Somebody has to be blamed or accept responsibility. And usually in companies, that tends to feel like a bad thing. Like culturally, failure's not truly viewed as something we can learn from something that can be good. But what about you? Are you willing to accept your own responsibility and make change?
[19:22] Failure, as the author explains here, is emotionally charged by nature, so it's hard to accept. And she argues that the tolerance of failure is actually essential so that you can extract the knowledge that failure provides. Okay, I'm gonna say that again. The tolerance of failure is essential to extract the knowledge that failure provides. Okay, so how about you? Do you have a tolerance of failure in your life? Can you look at it and say, yes, I can learn from this. I'm going to be persistent, but I'm also going to learn from my failures. I'm gonna shorten the time in between failures -- referencing back to the research study here now -- and can I have a tolerance for that in my own life, in my own company?
[20:08] Again, there are three kinds of failures, I'm just gonna review those real quick. Number one, preventable failures in routine operations. Number two, unavoidable failures in complex systems. Number three, intelligent failures at the frontier. And those are the good ones. So what about you? Do you have a tolerance for failure? Can you adopt this into your life and iterate and improve in every area of your life?
[20:34] So I told you I was gonna give you one solution and one takeaway. Number one, the solution is this: it's the After Action Review, the working with the coach, the journaling, talking with the mentor. What do we put this under a category? For the longtime listeners, you know what this is? This is a Productive Pause. That's a short period of focused reflection around specific questions that leads to clarity of action and peace of mind. Okay? It's not just getting up and going again just because I said you gotta get up faster and you gotta keep going. No, you've gotta hit the pause button. You've gotta learn, you've got to create action items.
[21:09] Here's your action item. Are you ready? Do you want to learn? Do you wanna actually take what I just shared with you and put this to work in your life? I've created a discovery exercise, a download that you can use, and you can get free access to it right now. It's called the Success Through Failure discovery exercise. I normally reserve this for my clients, you can get access to it. Go to jimharshawjr.com/action. If you're already on my email list, you will have access to this. We're gonna put this on the page where all of the content is, where there are hundreds of great Action Plans. This is also gonna be right at the top where there's going to be a link to this. You can download this and use this as an action item for you. How do you learn from this? How do you learn from what we just talked about, what I just shared with you in this episode and actually apply it? That's how you do it. Take action. Good luck.
[22:02] Thanks for listening. If you want to apply these principles into your life, let's talk. You can see the limited spaces that are open on my calendar at jimharshawjr.com/apply, where you can sign up for a free one-time coaching call directly with me. And don't forget to grab your Action Plan. Just go to jimharshawjr.com/action.
[22:21] And lastly, iTunes tends to suggest podcasts with more ratings and reviews more. You would totally make my day if you give me a rating and review. Those go a long way in helping me grow the podcast audience. Just open up your podcast app. If you have an iPhone, do a search for Success Through Failure, select it, and then scroll the whole way to the bottom where you can leave the podcast a rating and a review.
[22:47] Now, I hope this isn't just another podcast episode for you. I hope you take action on what you learned here today. Good luck and thanks for listening.
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