A number of stellar academics made minor headlines, in 2016-17, by publishing CVs of their failures. This had an initial, and intended, positive effect. Many early-stage researchers marvelled at the bravery of Stanford-level professors being willing to open-up about the unsuccessful pathways which they had followed earlier in their careers. Some of those writing their admissions even argued that their current CV would not get them a real job, outside of academia.
A natural, if gentle, backlash set-in pretty quickly. It’s all very well for successful associate or tenure-track professors to open-up and reveal their inner worries. But they are doing this from a position of incredible privilege. Would it really break down any barriers to reveal that the British royal family have worries about health and relationships and money too? Of course not! It softens their public image in some eyes; it humanises them. But it does not change the fact that they are revealing that even people with privilege have mundane worries too. If you have risen to tenure-track at a top American university you have joined the privileged classes, even if you did not start out that way. Your contribution to society may be in opening up new access to the elites, but it is not in admitting that the elites also fail sometimes.
I was very tempted at the time, to join the rush, and post my own CV of failure. I wanted to take advantage of my own, far less visible privilege, and lower the barrier to publishing these admisssions to a different class of people: unsuccessful academics. I didn’t quite make it in academia. In an earlier time, just 10 or 15 years ago, I think I would have been quite successful. But I am attracted to trying out new things, I have moved from topic to topic in order to broaden my intellectual repertoire. And, I have not been focused on publishing every idea I’ve had since beginning my masters 13 years ago; unlike many of my peers (and close friends).
I’m neither better nor worse than those who succeeded where I failed. I’m probably considered to be more intelligent than many of them, but too easily distracted by taking on new projects rather than capitalising on existing ones. I also have a long and unfortunate history of interacting with powerful charlatans of science. I’ve had my work stolen. I’ve had work published, with my name on it, without my consent. I’ve contributed code and detailed analysis to projects and not received co-authorship. And I have personally reported a number of senior scientists for their roles in knowingly publishing false data.
My route through academia was a school of hard knocks which only really paid-off in getting to work with some of the most brilliant minds I have ever encountered. That was one of the greatest pleasures of my life to date! (I don’t have kids – yet) What I learned from those great minds is the real topic of this article.
Never be afraid to fail. Never be afraid of having your faults pointed out to you. This is the only way to get good fast.
I am a fan of structured learning. In fact, there was an article on this recently which showed that students are only able to self-learn (from books) if they already possess the relevant mental models necessary to integrate the new information. Without this they cannot incept these models on the fly. My PhD supervisor (sorry Nicolas) was woefully incapable of imparting mental models. Luckily, for me, I was able to bootstrap them from elsewhere.
What I learned from Nicolas was the complete inefficiency of trying to hide something that you do not know or understand. There is always someone who will find it out. If you want to be right, then you have to go through a hundred rounds of being wrong. You can do this on your own, and procrastinate, and only discover one mistake in your thinking every few days (or weeks even). Or, you can accept that to get really good you will have to discover all of your mistakes and the sooner you discover them the better.
The first year of my PhD was painful in this regard. I felt inordinate shame at not being able to do things already. I didn’t have the typical background of students in my lab. I recognised this relatively quickly, but it took me much longer to learn to accept it. I wanted so badly to hide my lack of knowledge and to learn passively from the others. But passive learning is slow. I needed to speed it up. To do this, I had to be open about how little I knew and go from there.
To this day, I measure my productivity in terms of the number of mistakes which I have found – in my own work – in a given day. At peak work-rate during my PhD I was at around 16 pretty decent-sized mistakes per day. This is an incredible rate and it involves rethinking what you’re doing and what you want to do next, after every single one is discovered.
My metric is not an absolute measure. It needs to be weighted or filtered by an acknowledgement that some work is easier than others; although in this case, I would argue that this means that you can do more of it. And in a late stage of a project I see my error rate dropping to about 1 per day, and eventually 1-2 per week. This means that I’m effectively done.
I found it hard, in moving to Berlin, that the structure of academia here is competitive rather than collaborative. In both industry and academia, here, the tactic for getting ahead is to find the flaws in your colleagues’ arguments and expose them mercilessly in front of your superiors. I could perhaps cope with this but my own position was too close to being a direct challenge to my boss that I was exposed to every known method of misdirection in order to undermine my position.
It is only with hindsight that I realise how horrible it must have been to work with me. In this system, I was like an unguided missile careering through the self-image and status of most of my colleagues; both senior and junior (although I always delivered feedback more gently to junior colleagues). I am sharp, I notice problems both mathematical and analytic much faster than most people. I came from an environment where it was in everyone’s interest that I notice and voice these errors as quickly as possible. This would let us get on to the correct solution. But in Berlin I was a loose cannon who couldn’t be disposed of because I was always right.
I am taking this ramble through my own background not to diarise it, I’ve already done that for myself, but to make an extended opening into the modern start-up mantra, fail fast. I agree with that mantra. I used to hedge and say that sometimes, in some certain cases, it’s not so bad to draw things out. Actually, in political negotiations between vastly separated positions it’s the only way to eventually make things works! So, for every rule there’s an exception. But I still think that the rule holds:
This mantra has become accepted wisdom because important people say it should be so. The problem with accepted wisdom is that other people tend not to analyse it. And in this particular case, you need to really feel it in order to do it.
I have been involved in two projects, so far this year, where fail fast is relevant. In both cases, the other parties involved all agreed that we should fail quickly if we were wrong, there’s no point in wasting time if it was not going to work out, etc. And then human nature kicked in.
Few of us have been raised in a supportive environment, with a clear safety net, which encourages multiple failures. My parents did a very good job, but fail fast was not a mantra when I was growing up. They encouraged me to recover from failures, which is an important component, but I wasn’t encouraged to fail in the first place. I grew up in the age of being a generalist, rather than focusing on your peak skills. I’m quite happy with this. It is an excellent way of producing well-rounded members of society. But it’s culturally quite far from how you want to establish a start-up nowadays.
I have a lot more to add about how this issue has effected my own start-up, but that will follow at a later date.
I have a lot to be grateful for in my life. I grew up in a particularly supportive environment. I’ve faced some pretty enormous life challenges and this has led me to develop a confidence in my own robustness. Despite all of this I still feel a tinge of shame when I realise that I’ve been particularly wrong on an issue. But my experience of working with Nicolas, and a few notable others, has taught me to rewire this feeling. I overwrite the shame with a sense of excitement. I get excited that by finding an error in my thinking I’m about to make a major step forwards. In the early days I had to make an effort to find the excitement, now it comes all on its own completely bypassing the shame phase.
This probably sounds trite if you’re still at the beginning of your career. People like Ray Dalio come out with similar statements and it always sounds as though they’re making a poorly pitched staff motivational speech. But that’s because they’re already at the top of their pyramids. I’m only starting out. But I have enough intellectual achievement to know that, by now, if I am making a mistake it’s probably an important one. And therefore, fixing it is likely to make my life considerably better. I am already in a position in life whereby the benefits, to me, of discovering my mistakes far outweight any short-term costs.
The sooner you can get started on this road the better. The returns compound over time, speeding the next phase exponentially. Next time you make a major mistake, don’t suppress the learning because you associate it with shame. The real shame would be in not learning from the experience.