Last post, I talked about how trying things out yourself is a good way to learn about them. This post, I'm going to talk about ideas that helped me overcome one of my major obstacles to trying something -- fear of failure.

Overestimation of Damages: "Its not that big a deal"

In most cases, failure really isn't that big of a deal. Really. The difference between failure and a null action is the attempt. If the attempt isn't damaging, failure isn't damaging.

A few cases:

  • Trying a new food/recipe? Maybe you don't like it and waste a few dollars. Maybe you mess it up. So you eat something else. Just don't do it for your first dinner with the in-laws and it should be fine. But a new dish might be totally delicious.
  • Total stranger you think might be a cool person? Maybe they get annoyed at you. Then you can just break off and never talk to/see them again. Chatting with people I run into has made college visits much more enjoyable.
  • Competition you might want to enter? Worst case scenario is that you lose. I learned a lot from Moody's Mega Math Challenge, and even though I don't think we did a particularly good job at modeling Lake Powell I still learned a lot about how mathematical modeling works.
  • Dance you want to try? The worst that's likely is that you look a bit silly. Laugh it off.

There's lots of things where an attempt is actually worse than doing nothing. Jumping halfway to the other side of the ledge, for instance. Or only removing most of the toxic part of a pufferfish. But for a lot of potentially high-value things, a failed attempt doesn't really do much, so you might as well try them.

Rationality and Failure: "Don't panic"

Some people I know basically buckle under failure. A common failure mode seems to be to do something badly, establish an ugh field around that area, and then continue in a downward spiral. Getting a B on a math test turns into "Ugh, math", turns into "well I was never really good at that anyway", turns into a complete lack of effort. Here a little failure becomes a huge problem. A failure isn't catastrophic on its own, but giving up is.

Rather than focusing on what you didn't accomplish, try to figure out what happened insofar as understanding that helps you fix it. Toyota apparently emphasized this as their  5 Whys system, and it has become widespread in industry.

Another good reaction to failure from my life, at a robotics competition:

  • In autonomous mode, the robot raised its arm and kept raising it. In doing so, it broke off of its first actuation. This made it impossible for us to hang tubes for the rest of the game.
  • What can we do? We can't score, but we can play defense, and maybe deploy at the end of the game (that little robot that got shot out)
  • We don't want to play defense, because that has a high chance of further breaking our arm.
  • So deploy it is.
  • So we need to figure out how to get the arm out of the way, cue messing around.
  • That worked! Now go wait and try to deploy.
  • Success! We looked terrible, but we won that match.

Just  learn from your mistakes -- figure out what happened and what can be done to fix them. Then do whatever is needed. Try things you're interested in and learn enough to carry them to completion, or just be the wiser for having started them. 

quote paraphrased from  here. His username on LW is lionhearted.


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12 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:08 AM

Very true. Since starting university I've had many more opportunities to try new things, many of which I didn't think I'd like, but had a small enough failure cost that it seemed worth trying.

I'm now head writer of a university show, in a Madrigal choir and can dance salsa. I'm having a lot of fun.

In social situations, where you fear embarrassment and a status loss if you fail, you could try to cultivate a reputation for giving anything a try. Most people have the same fears, and trying something scary will usually get you respect because you're facing fears others couldn't. Trying and failing at something can actually be a status-raising move.


Sebastian Marshall talks about doing things that have a high upside and a low downside. I'm trying to do that, but have currently been running into issues with previous commitments (which, luckily, seem to largely run out by the end of April).

1 quote paraphrased from here. His username on LW is lionhearted.

(Is it me or does this footnote not refer back to anything?)

Understanding what happened is important, but I find five iterations to usually be far too many. You have to be careful when recursively asking "why?" because otherwise you end up with this.

Point. That's just what they do at Toyota, where I imagine that they work with systems complicated enough to actually merit 5 "why?"s.

I personally find 2-3 to work in most cases.

I really like the pottery story. Not sure if it's saying the same thing as the rest of the article, which contains some good advice, but felt long.

Fair point.

I split them up now. Not sure if I was supposed to do that, but you can just reply here about that.

When I saw the names of the articles and that you had posted twice in a row, I thought you were delibrately invoking your advice to try quantity over quality. It is rather amusing that you ended up doing this accidentally.


Actually, I thought that the quality would be improved by splitting them, which happened to increase quantity.


Would it be okay to split the article after I submitted it?

It seems like the pottery story and the other two sections could be separated into separate posts.

Often, it makes it

I think you lost some words right before the "Rationality and Failure: "Don't panic" section.

Thanks. I forgot what went there, but will go add it if/when I remember.