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Its really nicely written Bob.
In my opinion, the critical part of learning from failure (be it your own or other's) is analyzing the reasons of failure. Once you analyze the reasons, you can teach yourself and others to avoid similar/ related mistakes or steps which in-turn will increase your probability of success.


Bruce Lynn

As Daniel and Jason note, this is not an 'or' is an 'and' function. The two perspectives are not actually in conflict. They both stem from the concept of embracing failure. Komisar espouses embracing it directly, Roosevelt espouses ebracing it indirectly. Indirect or direct are both fine. The key is embracing failure. A subject that I have been blogging about for 4 years now - - particularly in the context of leadership and management.

Randy K is 100% correct in that there is nothing like doing it yourself. But as Warren Buffet once said, you don't have to piss on an electric fence yourself to find out that it's a bad idea. There is truth to both perspectives.

Don Rowley

I think both are right and here's why. You can learn from someone else's mistakes if the mistake is logical or procedural.

With mistakes the really involve *feeling*, I think we're all doomed to learn them in person. I think this is especially true for kids. As parents we spend a lot of time trying to protect them from getting hurt emotionally from a variety of situation. "Don't treat the person that way" or "If you do that you're going to break that person's heart." But's it's just words until they do treat someone poorly and then feel terrible about it. Hopefully they remember what you said and seek you out for guidance or comfort.

Bart Gottschalk

The question of learning for yourself and learning from your own experience is one that I've been wrestling with recently. I recently embarked on reshaping my company from a focus on hourly consulting to building and selling products. I've spent a number of years reading and working in environments where I've learned quite a bit from other's mistakes when developing products. One of the primary things I've taken away from these experiences is that I'm now at the point where I need to learn from my own. It's time to put myself out there and see what happens.

I don't expect immediate success. In fact, I've termed the next step of my plan "Batting Practice" since my goals are to learn and refine my process. I've written about this process extensively on my company blog and specifically in this post

I'd love to hear more about this topic and continue the discussion!

Jason Kiesau


Great post!

I love both perspectives. I think if you are an open minded person who truly wants to become the best you can be you will use both perspectives.

We all know people who think they know it all and refuse to learn from other people. Not productive.

We all know people who don't take initiatives and make decisions for themselves . . . relying on other people for guidance. Not productive either.

I know I have had far more failures in my life than I have had successes, but I keep moving. I know if I didn't learn from others . . . that failure number might me much greater!

"Failure Sucks, but Instructs!"

Love it!

Philippe Ameline

Eleanor Roosevelt's quotation is about others' failure as pieces of information... as others' success could be.

What Komisar points out is that personal failure leads to a different "print" in someone's mind.

To better explain this, I would say that others' experiences (whether a failure or a success) are weighted among entrepreneurs' piloting information for daily decision making.

When one needs to make crucial decisions of the "what bridge to cross and what bridge to burn" kind, then personal failures have a much higher weight.

Should I say that studying others' failure makes you smarter while learning form your own failures makes you wiser?

A good demonstration could be provided with the hard "game" of hiring somebody; only your personal mistakes can provide you with the proper instinct to make better decisions.

Lee Potts

I think Komisar is right in that failure is a very powerful teacher. The only problem is there's only one person in the classroom. Anyone with that much of a teacher's focused attention can't help but to learn.

Inherent in the Roosevelt model is a wider dispersal of the information necessary for others to avoid the same mistakes. Think of it as one of those classes taught by a disinterested professor to a huge lecture hall filled with freshmen. Many more people are exposed to the knowledge, but only those who are really interested and are actually paying attention will learn anything.

I think I'm more interested in Roosevelt's perspective. In fact I was thinking that the quote would make the perfect motto for my blog which is all about people sharing stories of how things can go wrong.


Hi Professor Sutton, great posting. To address your question, I think its worth being a bit more clear on what exactly is meant by "learning from failure." I think we are referencing a very specific class of failures, which result from pursuing a course of action with unknown or uncertain circumstances - i.e. risk-taking. In contrast, we are not referencing many other forms of failures, which can undeniably and with complete certainty be traced to pure incompetence. If you are just incompetent, all bets are off on whether you learned from your mistake, because by definition you weren't even trying to succeed in the first place.

But in the class of failures resulting from genuine risk-taking, I think your question is whether learning from observation is as effective as learning from personal experience. I think the answer actually lies very much in the personality of the individual. There are certain types of people who seem to be able to abstract their own life experiences from the cognitive understanding of those experiences. For people with such an ability to abstract, you are literally only one data point for your mind but that data is as good as any other data you acquire through observation. A classical example of this was Jules Verne who once said, "I shall from now on only travel in my imagination" in reference to the fact he could write about places and things in his books that he couldn't actually experience himself.

For other personality types, I think there is greater link between individual experience and cognition - and society might even falsely label these individuals as less intelligent - but in fact perhaps they learn more about the world that is immediately in front of them in a far richer way than perhaps the bookworms sitting in a library learning about the world in their own mind.

So long story short, I think whether learning from other's risk-taking is a function of how one learns in general - more so than anything to do with the risk-taking or resulting failure.

Daniel Cooke

Of course both Randy and Eleanor are correct and they do not really disagree. But Randy is has a point in that "if you want something done right (or in this case, if you need to really learn from something done wrong), do it yourself".



I think you are onto something, very consistent with Diego's argument at Metacool that we all need a place to fail where we can't do too much damage. Like the flight simulator!

John Caddell

Bob, I am also a fan of (learning from) failure. It's a hallmark of every good entrepreneur I've met. And I think they'd ascribe to Komisar's philosophy.

I also know a few airplane pilots. They are definitely in Eleanor Roosevelt's camp.

It may depend on how onerous the penalties for failure are.

regards, John

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