Thomas Pendergast Vladeck home

Failure is how things are optimized

I read Paul Graham; I am a big fan of his writing. 

One day he wrote: 

Things are always breaking at YC [Y Combinator, his company], because our strategy is to find bottlenecks by hitting them. That may sound irresponsible, but in practice it’s the way most complex systems get optimized.

Let’s play with his words, though, and instead speak about “high performance" systems as opposed to complex systems. Until last night it had not occurred to me what the impact of that statement would be, if true. 

The statement is almost a tautology in the sense that it is self-proving. A high-performance system is, almost by definition, something that has reached, or almost reached, the limits of performance. If it hasn’t, then it isn’t high-performance. And something that is close to the limits of its performance will fail, periodically. And by failing, you can learn why it failed, and improve. But only by crossing the threshold of what was previously thought possible can one extend the boundaries of performance.

So, it makes sense, and it feels true. And if you concede that it is true, a number of things suddenly fall into place. But they come from one major thing: failure should be an objective in-and-of-itself. One should seek to fail.

On a personal note, this felt like a major insight for me. Of course, I’m not the first to this party. Thomas Watson’s quote about doubling your failure rate comes to mind. But for me these sorts of things never had a real grounding, and they never quite landed on me. But now, for me at least, the reasoning is more clear. Failure is not just an indicator of ambition or tenacity. More fundamentally, it is a sine qua non of outsized success. 

Fundamentally, this implies a shift from thinking “what do I want to do next" — the implication being of course: “what should I succeed at (or try to succeed at) next?" — to thinking “how do I want to fail? How do I want to purposefully reach beyond what I think I can do?" 

I’ve heard of the concept of a “failure resume" a document showing initiatives undertaken, but ultimately unachieved by the writer as something used to judge candidates in a hiring process — alongside a traditional resume, showing successes. What would the optimal balance of these two documents be? Full-up on one, and nothing on the other would indicate either a lack of ambition (no failures), or an inability to learn from mistakes (no successes). 

It seems that you would want these entries to be somewhat in balance. 

So what is failure, then? Is it an indicator? Is it a result? It seems to me that (like success, its sibling with a flipped sign) it is an instrument that you use (to advance yourself as a person), and that, by itself, it should carry no positive or negative connotation. But, for better or for worse, it seems to come with a personal stigma, which must be overcome.