Failure Means Growth

Failure is a funny thing. At the very least, most of us hate failure. Our gut response is generally some sort of shame or search for a scapegoat. Many of us also have this strange idea that progress means less failure. I think the opposite is true.

It can be hard to appreciate, but in most cases, growth means more failure, not less. Merlin Mann illustrates this with a simple analogy called, “The First Pancake1:”

Regarding “The First Pancake Problem”

Anyone who’s ever made America’s favorite round and flat breakfast food is familiar with the phenomenon of The First Pancake.

No matter how good a cook you are, and no matter how hard you try, the first pancake of the batch always sucks.

It comes out burnt or undercooked or weirdly shaped or just oddly inedible and aesthetically displeasing. Just ask your kids.

At least compared to your normal pancake–and definitely compared to the far superior second and subsequent pancakes that make the cut and get promoted to the pile destined for the breakfast table–the first one’s always a disaster.

I’ll leave it to the physicists and foodies in the gallery to develop a unified field theory on exactly why our pancake problem crops up with such unerring dependability. But I will share an orthogonal theory: you will be a way happier and more successful cook if you just accept that your first pancake is and always will be a universally flukey mess.

But, that shouldn’t mean you never make another pancake.

One of my favorite parts of this quote points out our reliance on past success: “At least compared to your normal pancake…the first one’s always a disaster.” Many of us assume (even subconsciously) that prior victory means that we’ll be able to avoid future failure in subsequent endeavors. To some extent it can be true for those who carefully gather lessons and apply them—gleaning from past experience absolutely helps you avoid failure in similar situations. Some fundamental knowledge transcends circumstance.

But the reality is that each new undertaking we face brings fresh challenges that we haven’t experienced, opening the door to invite our favorite friend, Failure, to waltz right in. Ask any entrepreneur: one successful venture in no way guarantees the success of the next. The wrong end of that mindset is called “fighting the last war2,” and has haunted many a talented person.

All too often I struggle to see the equation properly. I hate failure, but I’m trying to develop more of a stomach for it. I’m trying to see failure for what it actually is: Some level of proof that I’m actually trying, that progress is being made, that I’m pushing forward. Instead of seeing failure as discouragement, I’m trying to see failure as encouragement, a teacher that continually teaches me to learn and grow.

(Thanks to Roy Schmidt and John Saddington for editing this post.) 


1. Merlin Mann is a marvelous thinker and writer. You can read the whole article, “Resolved: Stop Blaming the Pancakehere.2. Many generals fall in to the trap of Fighting the last war. The Maginot Line is a classic example.

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