In Eric Ries’ acclaimed bestseller The Lean Startup he makes it clear that little bets, or “experiments”, are critical to moving a business forward in a safe fashion:
…if you cannot fail, you cannot learn.
This isn’t just true for companies — it’s true for you. Getting it wrong helps you get it right. Making mistakes is vital to improvement.
“…Jevons is making a more subtle case for the role of error in innovation, because error is not simply a phase you have to suffer through on the way to genius. Error often creates a path that leads you out of your comfortable assumptions. De Forest was wrong about the utility of gas as a detector, but he kept probing at the edges of that error, until he hit upon something that was genuinely useful. Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore.
Taking tests increases performance — even when you fail the tests. Deliberately making mistakes during training led to better learning than being taught to prevent errors.
…the group encouraged to make errors not only exhibited greater feelings of self-efficacy, but because they had learned to figure their own way out of mistakes, they were also far faster and more accurate in how they used the software later on.
So why don’t we all just go make more mistakes? Oh yeah…
Fear of failure is one of the most powerful feelings.
In a surprising 2008 study, researchers at the University of Bath, UK, found that the fear of failure drives consumers far more than the promise of success; the latter oddly tends to paralyze us, while the former spurs us on (and pries open our wallets). In fact, as the study found, the most powerful persuader of all was giving consumers a glimpse of some future “feared self.”
You know what the funny thing is? It’s never as bad as you think. Really.
Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness has studied how long people feel lousy after bad things happen. The answer? Not nearly as long as they guess. You anticipate regret will be much more painful than it actually is. Studies show we all consistently overestimate how regret affects us.
Why is this? You don’t take into consideration your amazing ability to rationalize bad events and absolve yourself of responsibility. Regret hurts, but due to rationalizing it is not nearly as bad as we anticipate.
When we fear failure we limit our ability to succeed. “Both hope and despair are self-fulfilling prophecies.”
…the brain does not want the body to expend its resources unless we have a reasonable chance of success. Our physical strength is not accessible to us if the brain does not believe in the outcome, because the worst possible thing for humans to do is to expend all of our resources and fail. If we do not believe we can make it, we will not get the resources we need to make it. The moment we believe, the gates are opened, and a flood of energy is unleashed. Both hope and despair are self-fulfilling prophecies.
WHAT DO EXPERTS AND GENIUSES DO?
The shift to focusing on negative feedback — failure — is one of the marks of an expert mindset.
“Our predictions were extremely accurate,” Zimmerman said. “This showed that experts practice differently and far more strategically. When they fail, they don’t blame it on luck or themselves. They have a strategy they can fix.”
How about creative geniuses? They regard failure as a learning experience and grow from it.
…when they fail, they do not waste much time lamenting; blaming; or, at the extreme, quitting. Instead, regarding the failure as a learning experience, they try to build upon its lessons in their future endeavors. Framing is most succinctly captured in aphorism by French economist and visionary Jean Monnet: “I regard every defeat as an opportunity.”
Neuroscience research has shown that when we learn from our failures we don’t feel as bad about them.
Reframe a failure to find the benefit, even if it’s just a tiny nugget… Sarah Banks and colleagues have provided fMRI evidence that this act of consciously putting a positive spin on things actually changes brain activity patterns, specifically by engaging areas of the prefrontal cortex, which in turn dampens the response from the amygdalae. Consummate reformers like Wyeth and Meili seem able to tame their amygdalae, and thus negative thoughts, in order to translate even the most difficult circumstances into an affirmative challenge.
But this advice isn’t just for experts and geniuses. Daniel Pink’s The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need conveys a number of principles about the world of work that everyone should take note of. Not the least of which is:
Make excellent mistakes
SO WHAT SHOULD YOU DO?
Make “little bets.” What’s a little bet?
A small experiment that tests a theory. It’s just big enough to give you the answer you need but not so big that it wastes too much precious time, money or resources.
A little bet allows you to break out of your comfort zone and try something new knowing that if it doesn’t work out you can quickly recover and try something else.
In Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You he recommends little bets for someone trying to develop their skills and create a career:
The important thing about little bets is that they’re bite-sized. You try one. It takes a few months at most. It either succeeds or fails, but either way you get important feedback to guide your next steps. This approach stands in contrast to the idea of choosing a bold plan and making one big bet on its success.
If you want to test a theory or master a subject you need solid feedback and you need it fast. Failure is the clearest feedback and little bets are the safest way to fail.
Get out there and fail… so you can succeed.
This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
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