Study Success If You Want to Learn Success


image“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” — Bill Gates

Studying failure will teach you how failure works, but it won’t necessarily teach you how success works.

Success and failure aren’t opposites.

Nothing succeeds like success.  If you want to learn how to succeed, model from success.  Work backwards from what works.

In Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance, Marcus Buckingham writes about studying success.

Failure and Success are Not Opposites

You don’t learn success by studying failure.  They are not opposites.  They are inherently different.

Buckingham writes:

What has become evident in virtually every field of human endeavor is that failure and success are not opposites, they are merely different, and so they must be studied separately. 

Thus, for example, if you want to learn what you should not do after an environmental disaster, Chernobyl will be instructive. 

But if you want to learn what you should do, Chernobyl is a waste.  Only successful cleanups, such as at the Rocky Flats nuclear facility in Colorado, can tell you what excellence looks like.”

Study Productive Teams

If you want to succeed, you should study productive teams.

Buckingham writes:

“Study unproductive teams, and you soon discover that the teammates argue a lot.  Study successful teams, and you learn that they argue just as much.  To find the secrets to a great team, you have to investigate the successful ones and figure out what is going on in the space between the arguments.”

Study How the Body Fights Back

Study your body to see that success and failure are completely different recipes for results.

Buckingham writes:

“Focus your research on people who contract HIV and die, and you gain some useful insights about how the disease wrecks the body’s immune system.  But focus your research on those few people with HIV who are relatively unaffected by the disease, and you learn something else entirely: namely, how the body fights back.”

If You Want to Learn Success, Study Success

Success teaches better than failure.  If you want to learn success, study success.

Buckingham writes:

“Conventional wisdom tells us that we learn from our mistakes.  The strengths movement says that all we learn from mistakes are the characteristics of mistakes.  If we want to learn about our successes, we must study successes.”

Key Take Aways

Here are my key take aways:

  • Success and failure aren’t opposites.
  • Studying failure teaches you how failure works.
  • You learn success by studying success.
  • Nothing succeeds like success.

Back at Work

This really hits home for me.  At work, I study principles, patterns, and practices of successful examples.  I also study examples of failure (antipatterns).

It’s true that success is not the opposite of failure.

I can learn many ways how not to do something and still not know how to do it right.  That said, I like having a catalog of examples of the good and the bad.  The failures teach me where not to go or what not to do.  The successes give me a path to follow for the right results.

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  1. Great point, we can learn from success just as much as we can from failure. Conventional wisdom says failure is a great teacher (and it is). But, you’re right, we can also learn much from success too. Thanks for the reminder…

  2. My favorite:
    “Success and failure aren’t opposites.”
    Adopted as a mantra.
    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Are success and failure that different really?
    They both had a goal, required action, and lead to responsibility. They seem to me to be the middle dot extended in one direction or the other to an extreme. Thanks for taking the time to help me think about it.

  4. @Lance – Whenever I’m spending too much energy “learning lessons” from my failure, I step back and ask — where’s my success examples I can model from. I’m surprised sometimes by how much it can correct course.

    @Alik – I think you can appreciate the distinction, particularly from a pattern perspective.

    @Harmony – I like to think of it as paths of unlimited possibility where some paths produce the results you want, while others produce the results you don’t. I think another interesting angle is that sometimes paving a path to success is more inductive than deductive and when thinking your way forward won’t work, working backwards from results can work like a charm.

  5. I totally agree with this approach. The only trouble for me is that it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint the thing that is making a person or company successful. Once you do find that thing… run with it! Great post!

    – Jack Rugile
    Simple Sapien

  6. I collect role models. They’re a shorthand way of reminding me of what I want, and they contain a lot of nonverbal, latent learning.

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