Admitting Failure

July 24, 2009

I put this Title in my drafts folder on June 12th. Its been sitting there taunting me ever since. Then on Wednesday I attended a session at OSCON titled “Programmer Insecurity & The Genius Myth“. Ben Collins-Sussman and Brian Fitzpatrick talked to us about how our fear of looking like an idiot or not being taken seriously, or hubris, prevents us from admitting failure.

The following are my thoughts on this topic, which have recently been influenced and enhanced by Ben and Brian.

Failure is the perfect mentor. The emotions that failure evokes are powerful.  According to John Medina, author of Brain Rules, “Emotionally arousing events tend to be better remembered than neutral events”.  What happens then if we suppress the failure, and thus, to a large extent, the emotional gravity of the failure. I submit that we learn less from it, or possibly learn nothing at all.  If we don’t learn from failure, we are destined to fail again… in the same way. Ugh, what could be worse!

I think many of us, myself included, convince ourselves that we can learn privately from our mistakes, hiding the failure but still “feeling bad about it”. When we do this we cheat ourselves and those that we hide it from. First, we deprive ourselves the full richness of the experience. Here’s an anecdote from my recent experience.

Last week I made a tiny little programming error that had a rather large consequence. I nested a bit of code in the wrong for loop and instead of sending a single e-mail message to each of 700 users, I sent them all a single message with all the users’ e-mail addresses in the To: field.

Fortunately, this mistake was so high profile that I couldn’t hide it even if I wanted to. That said, having six of my fellow Steering Group privy to this mistake, I experienced the full mortification and education that that error provided me. Did it suck? Oh yes it did, but I can guarantee that I will never make that mistake again. If other developers had been working on this project, they wouldn’t make that mistake either. Its the  “Oh I see fire burned you, so I won’t stick my hand in it either” brain function.

The other major benefit of admitting failure is that it builds credibility. This might sound counter intuitive, but its true. Everyone makes mistakes. We tell our kids this, and occasionally say it to eachother, but I don’t think it really sinks in how true it is. This isn’t an excuse, or a consolation, its a universal truth.

When I work with someone who seems to be infallible, I generally feel one or two of the following, jealousy or incredulity.  Jealousy because I want to be perfect like that, and incredulous because I know it cannot be so. When I see someone admit to failure (especially if its one they could have just as easily concealed) I feel reverence and kinship. In a world of coverups a person who is not afraid to admit their failure openly is truly courageous (and wise).  This brave addmitter of failure is also showing me how “like me” they are. Showing their common humanness make them more accessible, more knowable, more human.

So, how ’bout it? Want to cop to your latest failure? That’s what comments are for? If not, I’m cool with that. The Internet is a big scarry long memoried beast. Instead go forward with this… “Embrace your inner fail!” Don’t yield to insecurity, be human.


  1. Comment by Fitz

    Fitz July 24, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    I still think we learn from non-failure events. Different people learn most easily in different ways. Good post tho.

    Oh, and speaking of failures, you spelled “admitting” wrong–maybe on purpose? If not, I bet you won’t do that again 🙂


  2. Comment by Tucker Bradford

    Tucker Bradford July 24, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    p.s. This post was getting a bit long, so I left some stuff out. Like, admitting failure is cathartic. Really, once everyone knows you botched something up, you don’t have to worry about them finding out anymore. How’s that for a sweet plus!

  3. Comment by Tucker Bradford

    Tucker Bradford July 25, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    Major Borkage on the spelling errors (there were 8 of them). Ugh.

  4. Comment by David Drazen

    David Drazen July 26, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    I enjoyed this one. My new job involves me in a subject area that is new to me, but not completely foreign. Regardless I’ve had some chances to mess some of my experimental results up accidentally. I’d rather not go into the details, but it wasn’t entirely my fault, but I admitted I screwed up. It was understood that it was part of doing experimental work, but I still felt silly about it, and now I’ll never make that mistake again. Over the past years, I’ve tried to live by the motto that “I give credit where it is due, and I admit to mistakes that I made”. So far I feel its done me well. So I agree that we do learn from our failures. My old karate sensei used to say that “when you fail you learn” and I do agree, but that doesn’t mean you have to fail in order to learn.

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