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Fail fast and fail often: why many failures can be the key to success

| 22 comments | Category: positive mentality

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“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan

As I wrote earlier in the week, my latest language learning attempt was definitely not a success.

While some people may take this as a “sign” that their luck isn’t with them, and their genes are against them, so they should give up immediately, I have found that successful people tend to simply keep on trying, despite the fact that they too face frustrating failures.

In fact, the most successful people have more failures than the average Joe because they have more experiences. The trick is that they pick themselves up, and shake it off quickly, whereas others will dwell on the mistake too long, or as the last thing they do in the project.

The ratio of successes to failures may actually be the same as someone taking on the challenge for just a few days, but the difference is whether you decide to stop at a failure, or keep going until you get as many failures as possible out of your system until the only possible outcome is that you succeed.

However, the thing is that they prefer to share and proclaim the successes. It’s human nature. This can give a false impression to those who are also facing many challenges, who feel like others casually stroll through the challenge, with blessings from the (gene/astrology/luck) gods without any setbacks.

On a blog like this for instance, I prefer to keep an optimistic attitude, or if I have less than ideal conditions then I like to see what I can learn from it. I just don’t see the point in being a big cry baby and whining about how unfair my life is because I have to work for things that aren’t handed to me on a silver platter, as if I was the only one who had to earn things worth striving towards in life. I prefer to stay positive and encouraging, since there is enough negativity and discouragement in the language learning world already.

But I realize that this can make it feel like it’s easier than it is, so today I want to share my failure CV/resume with you all! This is just a very very small sample of my many failures, and the sheer number is why I have actually indeed succeeded in so many projects. It’s all about perspective.

I like the quote from Thomas Edison when he was interviewed about his “failure” to create a working light bulb, at a time when he still had yet to find a solution: “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.

Countless failed attempts to learn Spanish

My story in learning Spanish is such a huge failed attempt of not using it with many Spaniards in Ireland as a teenager, applying to an evening Spanish course in University several times in a row and not getting accepted for a ridiculous reason, being the dumbest guy in the expensive class I signed up to when I finally did join one, trying to read El señor de los anillos as a way to force myself to read consistently and giving up, thinking that studying the dictionary from A-Z would be a good idea, wasting way too much money on book courses, software, and any quirky tool I could find, and after six entire months living in Spain still not able to string together a simple sentence.

You can read the full version of this story here, where I was determined to fight this apparent “destiny” of mine to never be good at Spanish. It’s even worse than the brief summary paragraph above implies – the universe was pretty clearly telling me that I was a failure at learning Spanish.

But I didn’t give up.

And that’s why after all the hard work, I’ve been awarded a C2 diploma by the Instituto Cervantes, why I’ve been interviewed on live radio in Spanish, learned how to dance salsa and tango through Spanish, and most importantly, used my Spanish in my travels to make new friends. I’ve had a lot of successes in Spanish and this is only because I’ve also had so many failures first.

Ready to give up on French

When I did successfully learn Spanish to a good level, I had more confidence to learn other languages, but success was far from guaranteed!

I managed to spend an entire nine months in Paris, barely progressing beyond being a functional tourist. It was a lonely experience, with it very hard for me to make friends and Parisians grimacing whenever I spoke.

One reason it was a lonely experience was that I was determined to learn French, and so had to stick to a decision to stop using so much damn English, which had given me so much success in Spanish. This unfortunately meant avoiding the international community, which would have led to way too much English being used.

Every evening back home, I tried to study, but it was really hard with the demotivating experience every time I stepped outside. I wouldn’t find out until many years later the mistakes I was making in not opening my mind enough to integrate better into Paris.

While I was determined, I considered extending my time in Paris but was given a metaphorical slap in the face when offered a pathetic job contract despite lots of hard work. My work and social life were at the lowest point they had ever been and this was just feeding my low spirits and lack of progress in the language.

Despite this horrible experience, I kept working hard those nine months to reach something that I could use and rather than go home with my tail between my legs, I decided to start anew, move down south to Toulouse, and reboot my attempts to learn French to ultimately sit and pass the B2 (Upper intermediate) diploma given by the Alliance Française. Then I later moved to Quebec to really bring my level up several notches, and eventually became a professional freelance translator from French to English. Here is a video of me discussing translation in French.

I basically failed my way to success once again.

Irish

The Irish language was taught to me from when I was six years old. I had spent ten entire years of getting more or less a lesson a day, 5 days a week, throughout the school year.

Despite this, my level was so bad that I had to drop down to sit the “Ordinary level” university entrance examination. This has such ridiculously easy questions that all you need to do is look for a keyword in a question, find that word in the text you are being tested on, and copy the entire sentence as your answer. This actually requires next to zero knowledge of the language in question and this technique is pretty much the only reason I passed the exam.

Ten years. It’s an immense time to go through language classes and have nothing to show for it. During my year in France, someone asked me to translate some basic phrases to Irish (such as “I love you”, and even “Hello”) and I couldn’t even do this.

I resolved to change this and moved to the Gaeltacht, felt even more embarassed when Russians, Chinese and other Europeans were speaking Irish better than me, but kept at it by using the language to make new friends and studying in a more effective way that was relevant to how I really needed to use the language. After a few more visits, and lots more struggling, I had a good enough level of Irish to be interviewed on the radio in the language! This would have been impossible if I hadn’t charged through all my previous failures to get over it and progress.

Chinese

Even one of my most recent language projects, just one year ago, after almost a decade of language learning experience posed me some unexpected challenges that slowed my progress down.

Rather than blame the language itself, which is surprisingly way easier than those obsessed with promoting scare tactics would have you believe, the issue was mostly due to something similar to the problem I had in Paris and a poor attempt to integrate into the local culture, making it hard to make any local friends, leading to stress and frustration.

When I got online, hoping for some support or a break, I actually had legions of Internet trolls sending me hate (note that native speakers are never this nasty; only a few select few but voicy language learners with narrow minds and sad lives), which just made me even more distracted and frustrated.

I had some days when I felt like my brain was melting, and others when I spent most of the day in frustration. But I staid on track, and this is why I reached a B1 (lower intermediate) level, and was able to converse in Mandarin after those intensive months. I’m still working on improving my level now these days.

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In fact, every language learning challenge I have ever taken on has had failures, moments when I felt like giving up, times when I saw others doing much better than me that got me down, many many hours of frustration, many conversations that went nowhere, rough starts, plateaus, forgotten words that I should know, and countless other experiences that made me feel like a failure. But I kept going anyway and that’s why I was ultimately successful.

Success isn’t a road paved with gold, sunshine, rainbows and smiles the whole way. You will face challenges that will push you and make you feel like giving up. The trick is to fail fast and fail often. I aim to make as many mistakes as possible and experiment as much as I can to try many approaches, adapt to the problems that may arise, embrace imperfection and make sure that overall I’m going in the right direction, even if I continue to run into brick walls that I have to find ways around.

When you see someone else apparently sail through the process easily, then you are seeing a filtered view of their story with the failures removed. They are always there.

I have many other big projects ahead of me, and expect many more failures, the vast majority of which will actually be simply lower grades of successes when you look at them right, or simply lessons that I had to learn to be able to find an approach that does work. Of course, it’s not about just failing, but learning from your failures. It’s said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

I also think expecting to do something once and thinking it will turn out perfectly, and if it doesn’t then deciding that it’s absolutely impossible, is equally insane.

Fail fast and fail often, and you’ll exhaust all outcomes until you eventually find success.

Share your thoughts on this in the comments below, and feel free to share this post with your friends on Facebook! Here’s a link to the photo of me with my sticky for the language exchange meeting, which you can easily “share” directly on Facebook if you like it!

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  • http://languagewanderer.wordpress.com/ Mariola

    Totally agree with what you wrote. That’s the difference between successful people and between those who fail. Successful people don’t give up, they are trying to achieve what they want despite obstacles( which will appear for sure:)).

  • http://www.facebook.com/ericfuse Eric J Phillipson

    Great post, Benny. Small failures are a part of the growing game of success and without them our brain would not adapt to learn the “right” way to do things. I try to think of achieving goals in terms of fitness (especially after the weight loss we discussed). When you are working out you are purposely trying to fail, you’re trying to lift that weight until you can’t continue, you’re trying to run until your legs start to give out, etc. But, why? Because through causing our body to fail repeatedly it learns that it has to adapt and grow (build muscle) or change where it gets its energy from (burn fat).

    By pushing through failure’s whether it be language learning, fitness, or our daily lives, we have to grow. We should always push towards failure (that point where we feel we can’t go on) so that we can achieve success. Thanks for the post.

  • http://www.facebook.com/comradealtmer Jorn van Schaïk

    I have had a whole host of weird experiences speaking French that I marvel that I actually got to a level where most French media is consumable these days. The same for Russian :) You just keep going :P

  • http://www.facebook.com/Teacher.Ken.Meadows Ken Meadows

    Hi! I’m a language teacher in Mexico and I just had a student write this on Facebook….Francamente no hay “Quimica” entre el “Ingles” y yo… No hay fecha de que podamos ser amigos. He’s obviously very frustrated so I passed on your excellent article here. So true and so well explained! Thank you!! (You have also motivated me in my battle to learn perfect Spanish and German – for me it’s finding the right way, and the time, to master both!)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Appreciate the share! It’s why I wrote it. I can see that people appreciate seeing struggles as well as successes, because something to relate to can be just as much or even more inspirational. I hope your student pushes on!

  • James

    Thanks a heap for this Benny! I’m 2 months into my own fluency in 3 months mission (inspired by your blog) and really getting frustrated, as for the last week I’ve been really burnt out and felt like giving up, not accomplishing much. This has really helped pick me up.

  • http://twitter.com/faHd_min_OR b liddy

    Fantastic post! That Jordan quote has to be one of my all time favorite quotes. I’m going to read this to my kids because every time they fail at something they get so upset. I try to stress to them that failure is the best teacher!

  • http://profiles.google.com/jondcurry Jon Curry

    Some background info on the Jordan quote. He said that, but only because he was reading a script for a commercial. I saw later someone asked him about it. “Wow, you really missed the game winner 26 times.” He replies “I don’t know, that’s what they told me.”

  • http://twitter.com/OCDemon Eytan Levy

    I find it rather encouraging to read up on miserable frustrations of others. Wait, let me clarify. It helps to remind everyone that successful people often had to navigate through endless swamps of failure, and when beginners have to deal with that nonsense, it’s helpful to know the struggles aren’t significantly different from the super achievers. Then they know they should keep going, like the other guy did.

    Reminds me of Tom Haverford on Parks and Rec, in regards to having to spend money to make money, then setting out to spend all the money they had. Genius. Sort of.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sofie.esther Sofie Clara Esther

    Hi Benny, I was hoping you could give me some advice. I am going to Berlin, Germany for the whole month of June. I will be attending a language school downtown and I am staying at a host family for accommodation (I felt like it would better improve my German than living in dorm rooms.) I am super nervous because I have never been away from my country (Canada) for that long, and alone, and in a country that doesn’t have English as its native language. I am no beginner in German, but I am be very shy in new places. I have also heard that it is very hard to make friends with Germans, and it isn’t uncommon to have culture shock there. I know that you have lived in Berlin (I think you’re living there right now?) so I was wondering if you could give me any advice about talking to Germans, making friends, proper manners in Germany, etc. And does Berlin speak good Hochdeutsch? Any advice you can give me would be appreciated. Thank you! :)

  • http://www.twitter.com/hipployta Hipployta

    I’ve been learning Korean…my challenge has been focus. I have accumulated vocabulary and grammar but I just cannot force myself to sit down for a set amount of time everyday and learn something. I started a blog in Korean just so I would post everyday…I did the first post almost a month ago and haven’t posted since. So I have failures with follow through. I think determination can push you forward with each of your failures. I took the 6 hour Defense Language Proficiency Test last week after studying Korean on and off for a year and managed a 0 in Listening and 0+ in Reading. A 0+ was actually my goals so I didn’t feel like a total failure but while I was taking the exam I felt disappointed in myself because there was so much that I felt I should have known and could have known…but didn’t. I think I should I have managed a 1 in Reading at least but I’ll do at least hat when I test again in 6 months. So thank you for sharing your story…multiple times…and inspiring others. I’m devoting 3 years to Korean, 3 to Japanese, and 4 to Mandarin. I want to achieve a certain level of fluency before I retire from the military in 2022. It would be much more helpful if I could actually live in the countries though…LOL

  • http://www.manonthelam.com/ Raymond @ Man On The Lam

    Very encourging post. Helpful to read your insights about your ‘failures’ on the road to success. Inspiring!

  • Caymane

    Fully agree, after quite a few months of floundering in my language learning (reading grammar books) , it was only after starting to speak and write with natives that I started to make measurable progress – with lots of mistakes of course :) This is also why “input only” methods just seem so wrong to me – It’s all too .. passive

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003680229212 Ivan Ivanov

    LWT French doesn’t works everybody has “from {{tablePrefix}}languages where LgID=9999″ error. Please, contact with developer

  • Layla

    The road to success is paved with failure! :D Great post, Benny, as always! ;) I came across your site some weeks ago by pure accident and I am fascinated by it. You are amazing, I absolutely love every word you write here and you are damn right about everything! Still did not get a chance to read everything but am on my way there! If you ever plan on coming to Romania, let me know! :D

  • TedHessing

    Great advice for any endeavor. Benny, any tips on how to fail faster? A lot of times you can get really into a project and then get stuck. You’ve put a lot of time in so you keep hammering and hammering away trying to reinforce a bad position. What lessons have you learned about avoiding the sunk cost pitfalls so you can ‘fail faster?’

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Keep trying something new! We’ll always be stuck in a rut if we keep doing the same things over and over again ;)

  • Photo_is_Music

    This is really.. I suppose I could say inspirational? I’ve been studying Korean for about a year and a haf now, but since entering college, it’s become difficult to advance because of the lack of time. The very thought of giving up makes me feel ill, but there are days where it seems like I’ll never reach fluency. Reading things like this, they really put those thoughts behind me. It might take a long time, but it’ll happen.

  • M Fox

    you lost me when you praised that dick thomas edison

  • http://www.facebook.com/mattia.picchi Mattia Picchi

    “forgotten words that I should know” thank you. I see myself in this sentence because my assimil is trolling me these days. (about that, I’m waiting for the honest review of assimil somewhere in the future)

  • http://twitter.com/Tropical_Nomad Adam Finan

    Another excellent post Benny. If it was easy everyone will do it. There are many different routes to success and each person will walk there own path.. Fail fast, so you succeed quicker!

  • David husk

    Feeling better…..