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How to handle failures – create learning outcomes to be successful?

In the last post, we tried to understand the nature of luck. In the Part-2 of this series, we will look at how we can handle failures better and turn them into phenomenal successes.

Life is a Process with Inputs and Outputs

We must understand that life is like a process you own. And every process has an input and an output. 

The more refined the input, the better the output. And refinement comes with time. 

We keep observing the output and keep making changes into the input, leading to a slightly better outcome every time. 

Every time you try, you can have only two outcomes – Success , or Learning. 

Yes, there are no failures. There are only learnings. 

Once you understand this, you will rule your luck like a king. 

Let’s look at my failure list from my last post: 

  1. 2002. Failed to become a Fighter Pilot. But I decided to opt for engineering. 
  2. 2003. Failed at IIT. But I studied hard in my college and graduated in the top percentile. 
  3. 2007. Lost chance for a top Engineering MS. But, I decided to go for a job first and learn more. 
  4. 2010. Failed at 7 out of 8 top MBAs I applied to. But kept improving my work experience and got through in 2014 in ISB.
  5. 2015. Rejected in 20+ applications. But, I kept optimising my resume till I hit a 50% selection rate for interviews. The learning still remains with me.
  6. 2017. 2 years of efforts in vain. A travel startup , my first stint post ISB, failed to raise extension funds. But I learned to grow systems and teams from scratch. 
  7. 2019. Another 2 years. My own startup could not scale. But I learnt to code, run a business myself, and decided to work only with people who I could see as mentors. (Learning > Money).

These learnings refined my skills and decision models at every stage of life. And I started seeing results of these learnings. Maybe I am a slow learner – some people learn fast, but the process is 100% dependable. 

Learn from Failures to handle them better

I deliberately make it a point to learn from my failures.

So much so, that I maintain a note of these failures and learnings. What I have learnt by observing these failures is that learning compounds over time. 

Nothing that you learn goes waste ever. 

And it keeps adding to your chances of getting successful. 

This process is roughly represented by the following graph. 

Failures build learning and expertise
Consistent Attempts with increased failures and learnings lead to success

You are in a learning zone whenever you start something new.  In this zone, you keep making mistakes and evolve your efforts to improve the outcome. 

Everytime you make a mistake, you learn and try again. And therefore, the next attempt becomes better than the last one. Your recoil power increases every time you learn and try again. 

It is important to note here that what works is not pure perseverance, but perseverance with learning, that is, attempts with subsequently changing strategies. 

In order to handle failures better, it is therefore critical to keep a note of the unsuccessful attempts, so we do not waste our time making the same mistakes again. 

I have worked with at least two highly successful founders who ( in terms of material outcome) practise this habit. 

I have seen them doing this time and again. So this is not just luck, but they know how to beat luck.

Both in their own styles zero down on successful attempts and keep cutting away the unsuccessful ones till the time they find extreme success in the success zone.

This extreme success comes through compounding of small increments. 

Compounding is slow, but you can speed up a little

This compounding process may be slow or fast depending on the individual ability to bounce back.

You can however, use data to speed up the process and land faster in the success zone. Some of the methods that I found useful in this regard are : 

  1. The 80-20 rule ( focus on 20% efforts that yield 80% of the outcome)
  2. The bell curve (avoid average approaches, add incremental skills that push to the right of mean) 
  3. Compounding ( add incremental value every day, every week – compounding effect is powerful, learning and investing compound well)
  4. Scaling ( focus more on stuff that scales – Hiring, Training help you scale)

One method to practise and perfect this is through carefully made checklists to eliminate errors.

I will brief more about this process of elimination in the next post – Increasing luck through elimination of errors.  

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