The Shocking Truth About Failure


If you try to roll a seven and instead roll an eight, did you fail? Or was it never up to you in the first place? (Photo by topher76)

The shocking truth about failure: we tell ourselves we’ve failed when we haven’t. 

Let’s get right to the point.

Chance outcomes can NOT be considered failures.

Sure, you might call a chance result “failure” in the technical sense of the word (i.e. not a successful result). Most of us, however, think of failure as a performance-based mistake or shortcoming of our own doing. But chance-based outcomes aren’t up to us, are they?

Statistics Time (i.e. Everyone Go To Sleep)

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman was confused. After conducting several related studies, the results were contradictory. He analyzed the data from every angle, maybe even upside-down, but he couldn’t make sense of it.

He finally realized his error. Kahneman had selected sample sizes that were too small, which led to unreliable results.

Though he is well-versed in statistics, Kahneman said he chose sample sizes based on tradition and his intuition (rather than statistics). He wondered if this could be a widespread occurrence. He put two other prominent statisticians—who had authored a statistics textbook—to the test.

They made the same mistake. 

And guess what? We make this mistake too. We often fail to consider instances of failure in the proper context.

“But I don’t even care about statistics!”

If you find statistics boring, wait for the explosions keep reading anyway, because this has big implications for our lives.


By associating statistics with a propane-based explosion, we see that 35% more readers will find statistics interesting, bringing the average to nearly 14%. (Photo by gynti_46)

Imagine: a man walks up to a woman and cordially asks her to dinner…

She denies him. Ouch. Over the next month, nine more women do the same. He’s been rejected ten times. How does he interpret that?

“Women don’t like me,” he thinks. HALT, SIR! I have to pull the statistics card here.

He interacted with ten women. There are 3.5 billion women on earth. Statistically speaking, even the most desirable bachelor would be susceptible to deca-rejection. If our bachelor presented his sob story to a statistician… 

“Wait, wait. Oh, this is good. So… *snickering* … so you’re saying that from a population of 3.5 billion, you’ve made a firm conclusion based on a sample size of TEN? Haaaa! What was the standard deviation on that one? Baaaahahaha! Oh man! Tell me another one!”

~ Statistician with a sick, statistic-based sense of humor

The Simple Difference Between Chance And Failure (That People Never Think About)

Asking a woman out to dinner is a chance proposition. She might have a boyfriend. She might like you. She might have just broken up with her boyfriend. She might love you. She might only be into [attribute] guys. For two quadrillion possible reasons, she might or might not be interested. That’s chance!

Applying for a job? Chance. Asking anyone for anything? Chance. It’s outside of your complete control.

Persistence is chance’s best friend, because if you continue to try a chance-based venture, you will probably succeed eventually.

Note on gambling: You can “persist” at slot machines for a long time and still expect to lose a lot of money. Slot machine gambling seems to be chance, but they’re as predictable as it gets in the long term (they are programmed to keep about 5-15% of the money we put into them). If you put 1 million dollars through a slot machine, you can expect to lose about $100,000 on average. The other difference between a slot machine and applying for jobs is that the latter is free and every win is meaningful. Don’t gamble!

What would a statistician tell a wanna-be-published writer to do? Chuck your freaking manuscript all over the place and be aggressive about it. Sure, if it’s terrible, you won’t get anywhere (unless there are vampires in it). But if it’s decent or even masterful, the more you send it out, the better your chance of getting an offer. The same goes for any chance-based pursuit.

That means if something bad happens, but it was chance-related, you have no right (let alone reason) to feel like you failed. 

This should come as instant relief to all of us—who have been turned down for jobs, dates, opportunities, and awards. When other people are deciding who wins, who gets a raise, and who gets a book published, it’s chance. I understand that my book Mini Habits—which has been a resounding success—could have flopped. I thought it was great and important information and did my best to promote it, but I could not force anyone to click the buy button.

On that same note, I blogged for two years before Deep Existence got any real traction. TWO years. I kept playing the chance game with content I believed was valuable. Eventually, my persistence paid off, I had some big guest posts, Lifehacker picked up one of my articles, and now I write for thousands of readers instead of dozens or hundreds. But it didn’t happen fast. For some, it might happen quickly, but it’s statistically unlikely.

So that’s chance. This perspective will help you put disappointing chance-based results behind you immediately. And what about true failure?

Failure is different.

Why We Must Distinguish Between Concrete Failure And Chance Failure

  • Failure is what Thomas Edison encountered numerous times before he found the successful formula for the light bulb.
  • Failure is trying to pursue a goal that’s bigger than your willpower strength.
  • Failure is touching a hot stove and getting burned.
  • Unlike chance, failure is a fully predictable result

Failure is really nice. I mean it. It’s even more comforting than chance, because it’s when you KNOW that something does NOT work. What if you touched 10 surfaces and didn’t know which one burned you? That would be terrible! 

Let me give you a personal example. I’ve recently had four guest posts published at the ever-popular Mind Body Green blog, which has more than 2.3 million Facebook fans. Many people who read my posts there will have no idea that before having my first post accepted, I sent them three guest posts that were rejected. After each submission, I heard nothing back. Not a word. I had never communicated with them before, so as far as I could tell, they would receive my article, print it out, and send it right into a wood chipper (for dramatic effect I suppose).

But I still sent them a fourth article, and a few days later, I got this message:

“Hi Stephen,

Thanks so much for your post on communication mistakes in relationships! It will be live on the site tomorrow.”

But wait, were the prior submissions chance or failure, then? Both, a little. An article’s merit is subjective, which makes it chance-based. And yet, I was 0/3 in my submissions, which made me think that perhaps it was failure, in that if I kept sending them the same type of article, they’d reject it.

I was right.

I asked my friend Tony how he managed to land a guest post with them. He said he researched the popular content on their site. Duh Stephen and thanks Tony! I looked at their most popular articles and many of them related to communication, so I wrote a post on that. Bingo! My post was accepted.

You can see there can be some overlap between chance failure and concrete failure, because if you take a chance with the wrong strategy, you’ll probably fail each time. In many cases, it’s hard to know, so don’t hesitate to ask for feedback. It takes courage to ask for feedback when you’re turned down, but it can be invaluable to help you see what you could do differently next time. 

Here are the big takeaways. Let these sink in and you’ll have a better life:

When something is chance, be stubbornly persistent. There’s no reason to quit a chance-based venture. Period. It’s irrational to quit unless it costs you something. It’s free to submit guest post articles, ask girls to go bowling with you, apply for your dream job, or ask your boss for a raise. It’s usually a lot of upside if you get a positive result.

When something fails, try something else. Concrete failure—as opposed to chance failure—gives you an opportunity to eliminate that way of doing things (again, think of Edison and his failed light bulb prototypes). Ironically, this type of failure is rarely the type we get upset about!

When you suspect it’s a combination of chance and failure, be persistent with varying strategies. My Mind Body Green example was a combination of chance and failure, and because I kept trying and getting rejected, I understood that I likely needed to try something different. I did and it worked. And this simple concept of understanding chance and failure is the key to getting what you want out of life. It protects you from the sting of rejection, implores you to persist, and enables you to adapt to life like a pro.

Now go out there, take chances, and fail! And succeed!

The subscriber-only message on 8/12/14 expands upon this post! Join Deep Existence below to read the rest. 

[optinly-campaign id="13fb3534-424e-48c8-9447-b499b47c79bc"]