Success Through Failure

Book cover for Adapt by Tim Harford

Throughout my life I have been told that mistakes are okay and to learn from them. However much of my experience has taught me very differently. In school, mistakes were bad and led to low grades and poor performance. At work, mistakes can lead to reprimands, demotions, or the loss of a job. So contrary to much of what I was taught, mistakes felt like something that should be avoided at all costs and certainly should not be accepted as a normal part of life. In his book Adapt, Tim Harford turns this on its head, showing not only how to learn from mistakes but arguing that, as it says in the subtitle, success always starts with failure.

The key takeaway is what Hardford calls the Palchinsky Principles after a Soviet scientist who was sent to Siberia and later executed by Stalin for daring to point out adaptations that would not work. These principles are variation, survivability, and selection. Adaptation starts with trying lots of things that might work, but which are unlikely to cause a catastrophic failure. After seeing what fails (most attempts) and what works, select the change that best meets the need.

A key to this process is to make sure that you know when you have failed. That may seem obvious, but we humans have a way of talking ourselves out of our mistakes. We deny they were mistakes at all by telling ourselves a story that somehow turns them into successes. Sometimes when we fail to admit our mistakes we continue on a failed course, wasting time that could be spent pursuing a more successful solution. And sometimes we just convince ourselves that it really wasn’t that bad even when we know better.

Throughout the book, the author uses examples to illustrate learning organizations (the US Army in Iraq), creating ideas that matter (solving the problem of locating a ship at sea), finding what works for the poor (building wells in Africa), and many others. By using such case studies, Harford explores in a practical way how to successfully change and adapt. In a world where it sometimes seems that innovation and change are happening for their own sake with no consideration of unintended consequences, this is a book with a method that could help create change that better solves the problems we collectively face.

Optimizing Regret

Cover of the book The Power of Regret

Bestselling author Daniel Pink’s latest book is The Power of Regret. It is based on scientific research that he commissioned as well as numerous previous studies. What is unique about this book is how the information is presented. It is both highly accessible and incredibly informative and practical.

The main argument is that regret is actually a positive emotion. It focuses us on how we can do better. Of course, focusing too much can incapacitate, and the book shows how to tap into this power of regret while avoiding its downsides.

Most studies group regrets by life categories–work, family, friends, romance, etc. But Pink sees similarities in regrets across these categories discovering four core regrets that he classifies as foundation regrets, boldness regrets, moral regrets, and connection regrets. He details each of these regret types and shares examples from regret surveys.

In the final part of the book, Pink shows how to “optimize” regret in a way that makes life better. In some cases this simply means taking the lessons from our regrets and moving on. In others, it involves undoing regrets.

I have had many regrets in my life. I spent the latter half of my forties working through a lot of them–learning from them and frankly growing up a bit. I feel like I learned so much of what is in this book the hard way. I sure would have appreciated learning sooner with the help of this book.