Productive Failure: Turn Mistakes Into Successes

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Designing Your Life" by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is productive failure? How can you become immune to failure?

Failure is part of life. Instead of trying to avoid it, you can change your attitude toward failure and life in general. Productive failure has value, because it helps you learn and grow.

Keep reading to learn what’s so great about productive failure.

Leveraging Productive Failure

You can become immune to failure by reframing your belief about what failure means. You also can learn and grow from your failures.

Defective belief: The success or failure of your life depends on its outcome.

  • Corrected belief: Life isn’t an outcome. It’s a process.

Defective belief: There are winners and losers in the finite game of life.

  • Corrected belief: There are no winners or losers in the infinite game of life.

The Value of Failure

Becoming immune to failure doesn’t mean you’ll never fail again. It means you’re protected from the negative feelings of self-recrimination that usually accompany failure.

You achieve this state by reframing your belief that failure is bad. You realize that when you’re a life designer, you fail intentionally and fail more often because you regularly employ the two life design attitudes of curiosity and experimentation. These lead you to generate ideas and build prototypes—which can fail. You also learn from the failures that arise from your personal weaknesses and screw-ups. 

Failure is a necessary part of the design process. It’s the raw material of success because it informs how you generate more ideas and build more prototypes. Productive failure contributes directly to who you become, both professionally and personally. 

The Nature of Failure and the Nature of Life

Realize that there’s a distinction between the productive failures of the design process and the psychological identity of “being a failure.” The latter is flatly impossible when you realize that your whole life is actually a process of life design. Because you’re always growing and changing, life is an “infinite game,” to use the philosopher James Carse’s memorable term. An infinite game is one in which you don’t follow preset rules in an effort to win but play with the rules themselves for the pure joy of the game.

(Shortform note: Learn more about finite and infinite games in our guide to The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek.)

Being, Doing, and Becoming

Since life is an infinite game, there’s no such thing as an ultimate failure from which you can’t recover. Instead, there’s only productive failure in the endlessly recursive process of life design. It’s recursive because it starts by taking stock of who and where you currently are. Then it moves on to trying things out and making intelligent choices. These choices in turn change your circumstances and even yourself, thus starting the whole process over again. Stated in classical Western philosophical terms, your life is an endless loop of being, doing, and becoming. This means that as a life designer, you’re always succeeding at the infinite game of finding who you are and meaningfully engaging with the world.

And, to repeat, you’re immune to failure—it doesn’t crush your spirit. This is true even for surprise events that you can’t anticipate and that aren’t part of your life design plans, such as the onset of a major illness. These become enfolded within your infinite game as you incorporate them into your process of being, doing, and becoming.

This means, when you learn to leverage productive failure, you’re free to do and pursue whatever you want because you’re no longer afraid of how you’ll feel if things don’t work out the way you expected.

Productive Failure: Turn Mistakes Into Successes

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  • Why finding your "true passion" in life is a myth
  • The five mental attitudes in design thinking
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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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