Growth

What’s Really Behind Our Obsession with Failure

In recent years, there’s been a growing obsession with failure. The “fail fast, fail often” mentality is polarizing. Many take it at face value and use it to romanticize their own failures. Others reject this as bad advice that’s intended only to soothe us in our shortcomings.

But regardless of where you stand, there remains an important lesson at the core of this mindset. And it’s not about failure, it’s about reach. If you’re willing to risk failure, you’re able to take more chances and reach further beyond your current ability level.

The goal is never failure itself. And that’s what most people get wrong. The goal is extending your reach and accelerating growth. This requires pursuing opportunities where failure is a potential outcome. Progress is difficult to come by when you limit yourself to situations where success and participation trophies are guaranteed outcomes.

There are two kinds of failure. The first comes from never trying out your ideas because you are afraid, or because you are waiting for the perfect time. This kind of failure you can never learn from, and such timidity will destroy you. The second kind comes from a bold and venturesome spirit. If you fail in this way, the hit that you take to your reputation is greatly outweighed by what you learn.
— Robert Greene

Avoiding contests that you’re not capable of winning makes sense in high-stakes situations. You want to eliminate risk and play the odds. But in modern life, success is rarely a matter of life and death. Most decisions aren’t catastrophic or irreversible.

It’s still important to choose the right opportunities where you have a competitive advantage in terms of your natural abilities or interests. But if you want to accelerate growth in these areas, you have to seek out challenges that test your limits and push you to the brink of your ability level. 

Aiming 4% beyond your current abilities

Habit expert and best-selling author, James Clear, suggests a good rule of thumb is to aim 4% beyond your current ability level. This is where deliberate practice takes place and you’re able to achieve a state of flow. 

Don’t get too hung up on the exact percentage, this is just a system to calculate risk and accelerate growth. If you’re aiming 4% beyond your current ability level, failure is a potential outcome. But it’s not the only available outcome – success is still within reach. This allows you to take advantage of inflection points and make bigger leaps – in your career, your art, or personal qualities you’re focused on improving. 

Ramit Sethi, best-selling finance author, has a similar approach where he keeps a tag in Gmail for “failures” and aims to reach four failures each month. But that doesn’t mean he’s taking stupid risks. He’s making calculated moves to extend his reach and give himself a chance. Sethi knows failure is a natural part of growing and trying new things. This mindset is key to the sustained growth of his business, helping him reach 400,000 newsletter subscribers and launch dozens of successful (and failed) products. 

Discovering the terrain

Both success and failure offer an equal sense of the terrain. Each reveals what to do more of, less of, and which direction might be worth exploring. When you’re just starting out, the map is obscured with certain parts missing. With each success and each failure, you learn a little more and reveal another piece of the map.

The only way to win is to learn faster than everyone else.
— Wade Shearer

Knowing what not to do can be just as powerful as knowing what to do. If you can avoid repeating small mistakes more than once, and avoid the colossal ones altogether, you can bring the full picture into focus, faster. Reflection on your own experiences, paired with vicarious learning (e.g., books or podcasts), helps commit experience into knowledge, shedding light on new corners of the map.

Learning fast, learning often

The driving force behind this fascination with failure is learning, which leads to growth. “Learn fast, learn often” is a more accurate but less buzzworthy rallying cry. Failure is just a mask that learning wears on occasion. 

Learning is what you’re really after. Figuring out what works, what doesn’t, and piecing together your understanding of life. With this you can build momentum in the areas you’ve prioritized. 

The “fail fast” mentality is about making calculated efforts to push your limits. But failure itself is not the goal. The goal is to push your limits, extend your reach, and develop yourself. Growth requires putting yourself in challenging situations that test your abilities. 

If nothing else, the romanticized advice surrounding failure should serve as a reminder that you’re the one who has to go out and live. Books, podcasts, and articles can provide you with strategies, systems, and kindred souls. But at the end of the day, if you want to grow, you have to test these ideas for yourself, risk failure, and fine-tune your own strategy along the way.

The Reality of Failing to Rise to the Occasion

What you don’t see when you look at the synopsis of great people’s lives are the times they fell short. From the outside, it looks like they operated with invincibility, rising up at each pivotal moment. When the stakes were at their highest, there was no stumble.

But when you dig into the details, there’s no one who has actually achieved this. Top performers assume more risk than others. They’re on the frontier, operating at the edge of their current abilities. If anything, this means failure is even more prevalent.

Failing to rise to the occasion

The truth is, there will be moments when you fail to rise to the occasion. You’re not always going to make the right decisions or act exactly how you imagined. And since perfection is impossible, what matters most is the ability to bounce back.

Even Warren Buffett had moments when he failed to follow through early in his life. At the beginning of his career, Buffett was terrified of public speaking. And while you might imagine that someone like Buffett stepped up, put himself through deliberate practice, and overcame the fear in one fell swoop — reality was much different.

In a widely-told story, at the beginning of his career, Buffett enrolled in a Dale Carnegie speaking course to improve his skills. But few sources include the fact that he quit the first time around. He was afraid of being called upon to speak so he dropped out of the class. It was only the second time around that he built the courage to follow through. Now Buffett credits this as the best $100 investment he’s ever made.

The ability to bounce back

Anyone can lecture you about decisions you should make, habits you should build, systems you should create. But the most successful people aren’t flawless in their decision making. They just have a remarkable ability to bounce back.

The greatest artists, entrepreneurs, and scientists take the misfortune in stride, turning obstacles on their end and using them as an opportunity to improve their craft. They embrace mistakes and capitalize on them, ensuring they never happen again. And that’s the real difference in top performers — they stumble, but they rarely repeat mistakes.

Whether you’re struggling against your internal limits — uncertainty, doubt, fear — or you’re facing external challenges, you’re going to have bad days. What matters is the ability to reflect, learn, and find the courage to start fresh the next day.

Awareness can go a long way when it comes to navigating failure and being kinder to yourself. It’s okay to hold yourself to your own high expectations, but expecting perfection will often lead you over the edge. Life is as much about resourcefulness and how you respond to challenging situations as it is carefully plotting a long-term strategy. You need both.

Professionals know this space well and embrace mistakes as learning cues. They learn from them, but they don’t obsess over them. Amateurs expect perfection and crumble when they fail to meet their own lofty expectations.

Failure is about reach

The goal is never failure itself. It’s the expansion of your reach and the rate of personal growth. That means pursuing opportunities where failure is a potential outcome. Not limiting yourself to situations where success and participation trophies are guaranteed outcomes.

If you’re willing to risk failure, you’ll take more chances and reach further beyond your current ability level. And this is the fastest way to learn and create more opportunities for accelerated growth. Take calculated risks.

There will be times that you surprise yourself. But there will also be times you fail to rise to the occasion. In those moments, what matters is your resilience and resourcefulness. The lean product mindset applies as well here as anywhere else. Build, measure, learn. Repeat.

Lessons from an Introvert: How to Push Your Limits and Overcome Uncertainty

If you want to achieve any sort of growth in life, you’re going to have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations. Experimentation is the fastest path towards experiences that allow you to learn, develop, and push your limits. Whether new skills, tactics, or techniques – growth comes from change.

But it’s easier said than done, especially for introverts. My perfect day is designed around routine, which helps build discipline and focus. I reserve high productivity times of the day for reading, writing, and creating. Although it’s challenging work, it’s a familiar challenge. It doesn’t generate the same type of discomfort for me as something like public speaking or learning a new skill.

If I’m not careful, it’s easy for me to settle into my comfort zone and ignore uncomfortable opportunities for growth that fall outside of my norm. I have a tendency to take discipline past the golden mean and become too rigid, losing flexibility in my day-to-day. To combat this, I have to disrupt my routine on occasion to make sure I’m still focused on the right things and challenging myself in new ways.

A few weeks ago, after months of deliberation, I shadowed an acting class. I wasn’t sure what to expect–it took everything in me just to show up. I have no desire to be an actor and there’s no hidden talent buried within me. In fact, the thought of acting makes me want to curl up and die. So what was I doing there?

My primary motivation was using it as an experiment to improve my public speaking skills. I came across the idea over coffee with a friend and fellow writer, Lily Hansen. She told me how her background in acting helped improve her stage presence and presentation skills. It was an interesting angle that I thought worth testing out.

The fact remained, I was nervous and in no way looking forward to the class. But I followed through because it aligned with an area of my life that I wanted to improve. The acting class was a vote for my desired identity – not as an actor, but as a stronger communicator and storyteller. I looked at it as an opportunity to arm myself with techniques to build greater comfort presenting in front of an audience.

Everyone’s different, but as an introvert, the question remains – when the stakes are at their highest, how do you take the leap and overcome uncertainty? This is how I’ve learned to navigate that anxiety.

Escaping the narrative

It’s important to know your tendencies. Understanding introversion and extroversion is an important part of self-discovery and awareness. It can help you discover where you gain energy and where your limits are. If you know which way you lean, you’ll know yourself better – when to push and when to ease off.

But keep in mind, it’s a spectrum. There’s a difference between awareness and over-identifying. Humans are incredibly complex. Neatly defined categories are only enticing because they’re easy and allow you to avoid navigating the gray area that defines most of life.

Don’t lock yourself into some narrative you can’t escape. Otherwise, it becomes an excuse to avoid uncomfortable situations. The same goes for extroversion–discomfort means different things to different people. If you want to avoid it, you can find plenty of familiar excuses within your comfort zone.

The power of ”who cares?”

Once you’ve escaped the narrative, it’s about taking the leap. Whether a presentation, high-stakes situation, or looking ridiculous when you’re learning a new skill, how do you take the first step?

When Shaun White, legendary snowboarder and three-time Olympic gold medalist, is at the top of an important run, the last thing he tells himself before he goes off is “who cares.” He doesn’t psych himself up or blast Eminem. He knows he’s put in the preparation. At that point, what happens, happens.

You don’t take new risks or perform your best by fueling your nerves. The who cares mindset isn’t about apathy, it’s about a state of relaxed concentration. This is where you do your best work. It’s a strangely empowering self-talk that helps navigate fears of judgment, failure, or general anxiety about drawing attention to yourself.

When I’m about to do something new or uncomfortable, this mindset provides a moment of calm before the storm. I know I’ll probably look like an idiot (the acting class), but if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that most people are too preoccupied with themselves to remember you tomorrow. You’re the only one still thinking about it.

Swim lessons and my life’s finest moments

At twenty-two, after graduating college, I decided to take swim lessons to learn proper technique. I was just getting into triathlons, which necessitate swimming with efficiency unless you want to smuggle in water wings. So I signed up for a month of private lessons at the Vanderbilt aquatics center.

I was prepared to look like a dumbass, but it surpassed even my expectations. The aquatics staff was so accustomed to elementary children signing up for these lessons that they ignored the form I filled out. To their surprise, a grown man, fifteen years older than every other person in the pool, wandered in for lessons.

With seven-year-olds in the lanes to either side, I started my lessons. The instructor (also younger than me) had to come up with a plan on the fly – diving for pool rings in the deep end wasn’t going to cut it. To make matters worse, I couldn’t make it down and back without flailing for air. Overall, these were some of the finest moments of my life.

But the who cares mindset helped me get over my ego and commit to learning proper technique. I looked like a complete noob for the first week, and I was. But with practice and time, I improved. Eight years later, I’m still swimming every week.

I reminded myself of this experience in my anticipation leading up to the acting class. Many of life’s most rewarding experiences happen once you let go of your fear of looking like an idiot. Don’t let your ego hold you back. These people aren’t going to remember you. Show up eager to learn and follow through on what you came to do.

Handling nerves in the moment

Almost always, I find that once I jump off and settle in, my nerves calm. But there are still moments when I get nervous in the middle of a challenging situation or new experience. When that happens, instead of amplifying my focus on myself and fueling my nerves, I shift my attention to externals.

In presentations or high-profile meetings, for example, I focus on non-verbals in the audience or the talking points of other people in the room. This helps keep me from spiraling or thinking ten lines ahead. By focusing outside of myself, I’m able to bring my attention back to the room, settle into the moment, and trust myself.

The All Blacks, New Zealand’s most successful rugby team, have a similar technique they use to bring themselves back to the match and avoid allowing the magnitude of the moment to overcome them. They use breathing techniques to put themselves in a clear, calm state. Then they anchor that state to a specific physical action – scrunching their toes, stamping their feet, or throwing water over their heads. This helps bring them back to the situation at hand and a relaxed state of concentration.

If you get too far ahead in what you’re trying to say or do, you’ll only compound the issue. Instead, come back to now. Project and focus more of your attention outside of yourself. It might be the opposite of your initial instinct to turn within, but it’s far more effective.

Jump when others retreat

If you want to become the best version of yourself, you’re going to have to put yourself out there. Growth comes from pushing your limits, experimenting with different approaches, and learning new skills. The greater tolerance you build for discomfort, the further the reaches of your comfort zone will extend. But this is a lifelong effort.

If you build self-awareness and maintain perspective leading up to, and during, the moment, you’ll be well on your way. Avoid over-identifying, be willing to look like an idiot, and avoid projecting too far into the future. This is how you get out of your own head, take risks, and jump when others retreat to familiar surroundings. It’s here where some of life's most valuable experiences are found.

Why Your First Bet Is Always Wrong

Why Your First Bet Is Always Wrong

Far too often we fixate on optimizing the first idea we come across. We become emotionally attached to a single design, storyline, or hypothesis. The end result is a slow crawl towards incremental improvement. Our work becomes a shell of how good it could be if it were allowed to evolve.

30 Lessons for Living at Your Best by 30

Behind almost everything I’ve done in my 20s there’s been a single motivating factor–discovering what it means to live well. By living well I don’t mean extravagantly. I mean determining what I want out of life, living in a way that aligns with those values and principles, and learning in everything I do. In other words, striving to be the best version of myself.

While there will be inevitable ups and downs, no matter where you are, you want to be able to step back and see a clear upward trajectory which tracks the course of your life.

The best way to ensure this is by learning from your failures, putting in the work, and aspiring to be at your best. There will be days, weeks, even months, when things might seem to stagnate or head in the opposite direction, but you need the mental toughness to adapt and push yourself towards progress, as defined by you.

With my 30th birthday in sight, I’ve narrowed in on a few hard-fought, as well as mind-numbingly simple lessons, which have helped me establish a sense of this trajectory. I don’t presume to have all the answers. These are just the lessons that have resonated strongest with me over the past decade. Remember, there’s no “right” path, but I hope these prove useful as you find your own way.

1. Get the essentials down first

If you expect to feel good and achieve anything in your life, you need to prioritize sleep, exercise and eating well. These are the non-negotiables. You can’t neglect yourself and expect to function at a high level. This is foundational to everything else on this list.

2. Limit the number of do-overs

Don’t underestimate the power of avoiding dumb decisions. Most of the trouble that people run into is self-inflicted. There are enough obstacles ahead of you as is, don’t create extra work for yourself. This doesn’t mean you have to be brilliant in every decision you make, just avoid the big mistakes. Focus on making well-rounded, rational decisions each day, and allow compound interest to run its course.

3. There is no way things are “supposed to be”

The sooner you give up an imagined reality, the better you’ll be able to negotiate the way forward. Close the gap by differentiating between internal and external expectations and assigning each their proper weight. Prioritizing internal expectations is the path towards gratitude and self-sufficiency. External expectations introduce dependencies. Don’t place a premium on things you can’t affect.

4. Create more, consume less

What you consume doesn’t make you unique. The fact that you’re a fan of the Golden State Warriors, listen to Ed Sheeran, watch Game of Thrones, and only buy Apple products, are not unique identifiers. What you create and what you’re putting out into the world is what defines you.

5. Life is a single player game

You can’t expect to retain your sanity if you insist on comparing yourself to people heading in an entirely different direction. Measure you against you.

6. There is no substitute for true resourcefulness

One of the biggest obstacles I faced when I took my first job out of college was my inability to handle ambiguity and uncertainty. The predictability of the curriculum and instruction in school won’t do you any favors here. As it turns out, life is far more about resourcefulness than a checklist of prescribed actions. You must learn to adapt, teach yourself, and create your own momentum. There is no blueprint to walk you through every step of your life.

7. Put in the self-work

It’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be worth it. Your 20s should be a decade primarily dedicated to yourself so you can figure your shit out. Before you enter into any relationship or realize any of your aspirations–if you don’t want them to go up in flames–you need to be self-aware and self-sufficient.

8. Directions in life are mutually exclusive

For the first half of my 20s I wanted to be everything, so I was unable to commit to anything. But the earlier you cross the irrelevant off your list, the faster you’ll be able to make meaningful progress and give your complete attention to the things you can’t live without. If you’re unsure where to start, try this exercise from Warren Buffett and double down on those things.

9. JOMO (joy of missing out) > FOMO (fear of missing out)

“FOMO” is another way of saying you’re incapable of prioritizing–you want to be everything and everywhere, which is an impossibility. Once you’ve figured out what’s important to you, passing on unnecessary obligations or engagements which you’re not invested in will be a source of great satisfaction.

10. What you walk away from defines you as much as the things you stick out

Whenever you encounter a moment of self-doubt or the urge to quit, ask yourself, do you feel like quitting because it’s difficult? Or do you feel like quitting because it contradicts your character, values, or priorities? The former means you should stick it out, the latter means it’s time to call it quits.

11. Growth is nonlinear

As Nassim Taleb explains in Fooled by Randomness, nonlinear relationships are the rule, not the exception. We mistakingly believe that if two variables are causally linked, a steady input in one should result in a positive linear progression in the other. Life doesn’t work that way. You can’t always expect visible progress when comparing one day to the next. You might have to dedicate years to your craft before something clicks. Remember, it’s your overall trajectory that matters, not the noise you encounter on a daily basis. The shorter the time frame, the more variance there will be–focus on the big picture.

12. Figure out what you can sustain indefinitely

That’s what it’s going take to set yourself apart. Most people drop off at the first sign of adversity or boredom, outlast them.

13. Leverage compound interest

The power of compound interest applies to almost everything in life, not just financial investments. For most hard-working, talented people it’s just a matter of time. Years of consistently showing up, learning, and dedicating time to your craft will pay dividends. The power of small, calculated decisions, habits, and behaviors grows exponentially over time.

14. Physical endurance builds mental endurance

Most people live in fear of the slightest discomfort or inconvenience. If you’re able to practice consistently pushing yourself to the point of discomfort and sustaining at that level, you begin to build resilience. In this regard, physical endurance translates into mental toughness.

15. Lasting comfort is found by embracing discomfort

Intermittent periods of discomfort prepare you to handle a wider range of potential scenarios. This helps you expand the confines of your current comfort zone and, ultimately, experience less discomfort than those who cling to convenience and familiarity. The latter find themselves in positions of considerable vulnerability–rigid and unable to adapt. This is the paradox of comfort.

16. Stillness is the best lesson traveling will teach you

I was an insatiable traveler for most of my 20s, visiting 25 countries and four continents. The only thing I’ve found more fulfilling than travel is learning to be still and content at home. Travel, go see the world, live somewhere new–otherwise, you’ll regret it later on. But this should lay the foundation for you to find peace in your future immediate surroundings. And this is the real value of experiences gained from travel–they help you build a broader perspective and a stronger sense of identity and appreciation at home. There’s nothing more fulfilling than the sense of gratitude that comes from moments when you’re content right with being right where you are.

17. Get a dog

Very few things have had a more profound, positive impact on my life. Presence, patience, empathy, joy–a dog will remind you of these values every single day.

18. Read like your life depends on it

To quote Naval Ravikant, once, “The genuine love for reading itself, when cultivated, is a superpower. The means of learning are abundant–it’s the desire to learn that is scarce. Cultivate that desire by reading what you want.” And twice, “Reading science, math, and philosophy one hour per day will likely put you at the upper echelon of human success within seven years.” The power of compound interest applies as much to reading and building better mental models as anything else.

19. No one alive has all the right answers

Avoid the urge to overidentify and reach for absolutes. Learn to live in the gray area. That’s what separates lifelong learners from pretenders.

20. General advice > specific advice

You will encounter mentors who want to prescribe specific advice. For the most part, it’s ineffective, because there is no single path to success. You will never be able to replicate the lives of those you admire. But you can examine the systems and mental models that give them their edge. This is where you’ll find the truly valuable lessons that you can apply to your own life, direction, and decision making.

21. Avoid ideologies at all costs

As Charlie Munger suggests, “Heavy ideology is one of the most extreme distorters of human cognition.” There’s no better way to impair your own rationality and decision making. Ideologies will drive you towards confirmation bias and close-mindedness.

22. Legacy is a mirage

If you have any sense of historical perspective, you’ll realize that you won’t be remembered. The desire for legacy is narcissism in disguise. This realization should be empowering, not disheartening. It will allow you to go out and make a difference now, instead of attempting to preserve some future image of yourself when you won’t be around to reap any of its benefits.

23. “In victory, learn when to stop.”

Drifting expectations are dangerous. This is one of Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power. You have to allow yourself time to reflect on what you have and how far you’ve come. Those who refuse to come to terms with this lesson find themselves as textbook examples of hubris, brought down by the same insatiability and arrogance that led them on an accelerated, unsustainable path towards the top. This is the reason people lose fortunes, families crumble, companies self-destruct, empires fall. More is not always the answer. Know when you’ve won.

24. Money matters

In The Geometry of Wealth, Brian Portnoy explains that wealth and investing are about funding contentment and underwriting a meaningful life, as defined by you. Not about getting rich, having “more,” and losing yourself on the hedonic treadmill. There is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to the impact of income on experiential happiness (around $75,000), but there is no cap on reflective happiness. Wealth is a tool to achieve freedom, self-sufficiency, and spend your time exactly how you want to.

25. You can’t have it all, but you can have what you prioritize

Don’t try to keep up with those living an extravagant lifestyle. If your goal is to fund your own contentment and underwrite a meaningful life, you need to figure out what’s most important to you. Spend money on those things, without hesitation, and invest in yourself. Live frugally and cut costs everywhere else.

26. Moderation is king

This is the single most important value no one has told you about. Avoid excess. As a society, we pride ourselves on extremes. But even our virtues, when taken too far, collapse into their opposite–crippling flaws in character. Find the golden mean.

27. Everyone is facing their own adversity

I’m reminded of this on an almost weekly basis. The carefully curated versions people project of themselves on social media don’t reflect what’s actually going on in their lives. You never know what someone’s going through or what they’ve been through. Be kind.

28. Commit to the people who share your most important values

I can’t say it better than Ray Dalio, “When you have alignment, cherish it. While there is nobody in the world who will share your point of view on everything, there are people who will share your most important values and the ways in which you choose to live them out. Make sure you end up with those people.”

29. Build a philosophy of life that works for you

Philosophy is about the art of living. It will make these lessons easier if you have a reference point that reflects your most important values and principles. For me, this is a version of Stoicism. Go out there and find one that works for you, or create your own. Whatever you do, establish one, because this adds purpose, direction, and serves as a constant reminder of what’s worth attaining in life.

30. There’s no secret to happiness, other than gratitude

The single trait that the happiest people all have in common is a profound sense of gratitude. They wake up in the morning and feel lucky, with an appreciation for life and their current position. I achieve this by reflecting on all the good things I have, worst-case scenarios, and the finer details in my immediate surroundings.


The only true failures in life are moments of apathy or defiance, when you’re unwilling to learn. Knowledge and experience count for little if you’re unable to commit them as life lessons.

Determine what you want out of life, live in a way that aligns with those values, and never stop learning. That’s what it takes if you want to discover what it means to live well and maintain an upward trajectory over the course of your life. Go out and find the lessons that resonate strongest with you.