Is learning from mistakes overrated? In the business world failure has become an expected rite of passage, but we can reasonably wonder if it’s completely useless.
We hear that failure builds character. People advise, “Fail early and fail often.” In order to support this idea, someone spread in social networks a list of Abraham Lincoln’s failures:
1831 – Lost his job
1832 – Defeated in run for Illinois State Legislature
1833 – Failed in business
1835 – Sweetheart died
1836 – Had nervous breakdown
1838 – Defeated in run for Illinois House Speaker
1843 – Defeated in run for nomination for U.S. Congress
1848 – Lost re-nomination
1849 – Rejected for land officer position
1854 – Defeated in run for U.S. Senate
1856 – Defeated in run for nomination for Vice President
1858 – Again defeated in run for U.S. Senate
1860 – Elected President
Wait a moment. This is a misleading list. All these failures and one, final success only? It doesn’t work this way. Do you want a proof? Let’s take a look at this second, longer list instead.
1832 – Elected company captain of Illinois militia in Black Hawk War
1833 – Appointed postmaster of New Salem, Illinois
1833 – Appointed deputy surveyor of Sangamon County
1834 – Elected to Illinois State Legislature
1836 – Re-elected to Illinois state legislature (running first in his district)
1836 – Received license to practice law in Illinois state courts
1837 – Led Whig delegation in moving Illinois state capital from Vandalia to Springfield
1837 – Became law partner of John T. Stuart
1838 – Nominated for Illinois House Speaker by Whig caucus
1838 – Re-elected to Illinois House (running first in his district)
1838 – Served as Whig floor leader
1839 – Chosen presidential elector by first Whig convention
1839 – Admitted to practice law in U.S. Circuit Court
1840 – Argues first case before Illinois Supreme Court
1840 – Re-elected to Illinois state legislature
1841 – Established new law practice with Stephen T. Logan
1842 – Admitted to practice law in U.S. District Court
1844 – Established own law practice with William H. Herndon as junior partner
1846 – Elected to Congress
1849 – Admitted to practice law in U.S. Supreme Court
1849 – Declined appointment as secretary and then as governor of Oregon Territory
1854 – Elected to Illinois state legislature (but declined seat to run for U.S. Senate)
1860 – Elected President
Now the progression towards success appears more clear and reasonable.
A common misconception: “You need to learn from your mistakes”. What do we really learn from our mistakes? We might learn what not to do again, but how valuable is that? We still don’t know what we should do next.
Let’s contrast that with learning from our successes. Success gives us real ammunition. When something succeeds, we know what worked and we can do it again. And the next time, we’ll probably do it even better.
Failure is not a prerequisite for success. Jason Fried in his book “Rework” reports that a Harvard Business School study found already-successful entrepreneurs are far more likely to succeed again (the success rate for their future companies is 34 percent). But entrepreneurs whose companies failed the first time had almost the same follow-on success rate as people starting a company for the first time: just 23 percent. People who failed before have the same amount of success as people who have never tried at all. Success is therefore the experience that actually counts.
That shouldn’t be a surprise: it’s exactly how nature works. Evolution doesn’t linger on past failures, it’s always building upon what worked. So should you.