How Seeking Out Failure Can Lead to Your Success

I read a very interesting blog post the other day about "survivor bias," an important statistical principle that could greatly affect your future success.

In brief, survivor bias occurs when an analysis excludes information since that information no longer exists.

Let me give you an example...

The English forces, during World War II, sent planes each day to bomb the Germans. As you might expect, several of these planes were shot down. And, the ones that did come back typically returned with multiple bullet holes.

Now, the English obviously wanted to maximize the chances of its planes and soldiers returning home. So English engineers studied the planes that returned. In doing so, they found patterns among the bullet holes. Specifically they found lots of holes on the wings and tail of the plan, but few in the cockpit or fuel tanks.

As a result, the English added armored plating to the wings and tail.

As you might have already concluded, this was the wrong thing to do. The better decision would have been to add armored plating to the cockpit and fuel tanks. For, the planes that were shot in those places were the planes that were shot down and never returned.

The English engineers' analysis missed this data because these were the planes that they were unable to examine. This is "survivor bias"-- their inability to include this critical data in their analysis since it was unavailable or didn't "survive."

So why does this matter to you?

It matters because as you start and/or grow your businesses, you will have to hire service providers and staff. And naturally, you will want to hire those with a track record of success.

But, when you hire staff who have only worked at successful companies, you may fall victim to survivor bias. That is, they have not learned many of the lessons that individuals and companies learn when they fail.

Likewise, when you hire a service provider that claims that every one of their clients has been successful, maybe they haven't learned from client failures.

They say that you learn more from failure than from success.

While that can be debated, from personal experience I can say that I've learned a ton from both failure and success. From successes, I have learned principles and formulas that worked. The ones I strive to replicate on a daily basis.

And from failures, I have learned things to avoid. I have learned flaws in my thinking. But importantly, many of my successes have come out of failure. From tinkering ideas and plans that weren't quite working. And making them work. And, these new ideas would never have come to me had I not failed first.

Now, clearly my advice is not to hire failures or those with a habit of failure. But, likewise, it's not to hire staff or service providers who claim to always succeed. Since a balance between success and failure often provides that winning combination of wisdom.

So, the next time you are interviewing a key hire or service provider, make sure to ask about their failures. Ask about tasks and jobs that they or their companies failed at. And find out what they learned from that failure.

Ideally they are the types of candidates that learned a lot from their failures and were able to overcome them. This is because the vast majority of growing companies fail at things over and over again. It is their ability to constantly modify and improve their businesses that enables them to excel. Surround yourself with people that have this ability.
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Tim Cohn says

"The way to succeed is to double your error rate." Thomas J. Watson Sr.
Posted at 6:46 pm
Michael L Gentile says

Never dismiss someone who has failed, his or her insight is invaluable to your success… I have presented this concept to every member of my staff. We routinely review way certain organizations failed and the lessons we can take from their experiences. We have even talked with a number of the employees who have lived through the experience for even greater insight. It has also helped my staff know that failure is not fatal; it’s just part of the growing process.
Posted at 8:15 am
Don Jarrell says

A corollary to the "survivor bias" is frequently discussed in Product Management circles. Claiming a low rate of trouble tickets or complaints from customers completely misses the issues that cause other people to *not* be your customer. It is the latter that cost the company the most.
Posted at 5:57 pm
Mouli says

I completely agree with this theory. I always believe that success doesnot have the same teaching rigor as failure. The reasons essentially, I believe, is because you seldom see something like 'OK let us all now sit and analyze why we succeeded' where as this would be the first reaction and also action when something does'nt work. Mouli
Posted at 12:30 am
Madstupid says

it seem so.
Posted at 11:59 am

A friend of mine dedicated 15 years of her life for a reputable firm.When she decided she had to move on,i asked her what is the most valuable thing she had learnt working for this firm? Her answer was " I have learnt and noticed the inside out of this company, it is simple whatever they did i will DO THE OPPOSITE and i am sure i will be successful in all my future endeavours" I thought it was clever, of course it said a lot of the company she worked for too .
Posted at 1:24 am
Alabamarjara Itama says

Great piece. Put differently, there are no failures or mistakes in life, only lessons!
Posted at 8:43 am

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