The Failure of Success

When a few years ago I was at an international conference of about 150 public health professionals, one of the themes we discussed was building partnerships with other organisations. We held a panel representing three cases where partnerships apparently worked and the discussion revolved around making partnerships work. The session was framed something like ‘95% of partnerships do not work, so let’s learn from this panel how we can make it work’. That struck me as odd. If 95% of partnerships did not work, then why didn’t we hear from those where it did not work and why? The answer is simple: who wants to listen to those who failed… or for that matter made mistakes and did not succeed?

Yet the 95% provides a much bigger base of our experience and probably a richer and more robust one in the range of lessons that could be learned given its size. I can imagine how making that suggestion to the organisers would have raised eyebrows. Instead, we identified three cases which did work (at least at the time) and tried to find an explanation for why they did. One of the assumptions would have been that they did something differently to others. The irony was that the conference was attended by people most of whom studied at least basic epidemiology and/or statistics so one would expect to consider randomness and selection bias. Nonetheless we neglected the basic idea of randomness, comparison and sampling. In that, the success of those three cases could be purely due to luck or factors not different from the failed projects. 

Why not learn from the mistakes and failures so we do not repeat them? It seems to me that this is a reflection of our wider experience and tendency (or shall I say obsession) with success. We want to learn from millionaire Joe how to become a millionaire and is more successful than millions of other people out there might have worked as hard and smart, if not more. But going to those who are like us does not make for a good story. Instead, we are often drawn to the small and exceptional cases of what we deem to be a success and we neglect ‘failures’. As the saying goes ‘history is written by the victors’. And yet learning from failures is probably more important, or at least can be more informative, in life and in business. 

Yet our aversion to failure seems too strong. Even in science – which claims to be objective (whatever that means) – is biased against failure. In scientific publishing, whether in medicine or management, we prefer, and therefore define successful publications as, those which have shown statistical ‘significance’ (in many cases the word implies useless importance) and we do not publish work with no statistical significance even though it too tells us something about how things work (or don’t). Worst yet, we avoid publishing those which uncovered the failure of the previously published ‘successful’ studies.

It seems that our aversion to failure is so strong that it blinds us to the possibility that we fail to grasp that success is often random and much of life consists of imperfections, mistakes and shortcomings. As Rozensweig puts it “We want explanations. We want the world around us to make sense.” Embracing what we deem to be a success and neglecting failure, can itself become a failure of success. It is also a failure of our imagination of how life or business works. Too often what we deem to be a success and failure are what we construct it to be. Perhaps life is less about working out big successes, but more about avoiding big failures which harm us. Yet avoiding big failures requires first learning to accept small ones. Perhaps if we can learn that, that’s already a success.

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