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Failure as the Single Best Marker of Human Success

Glorious dandelion fields betray stories of failures. The same is true with us.

Failure is a predictor of success. This is, without question, one of life's great ironies. And it has deep roots in the evolution of life. And it is, without hesitation, simply true.

From a biological, natural selection perspective, the idea is that some features of organisms are more likely (on average, by chance) to make it into future generations compared with other features. Hand grip strength that is strong is likely to lead to better tree-climbing, more survival, and more reproduction than a weak handgrip (just watch American Ninja Warrior for evidence of this). But while some designs (for example, strong and versatile handgrip strength) outcompete other designs (wimpy handgrip strength), all designs will show some level of failure. Adaptations for strong handgrip strength may well have evolved over thousands of generations during the evolution of the arboreal primates in Africa— but we must note that in this process, failure, leading to primates falling from the canopy to the forest floor, was necessarily a sometimes-consequence. Many primates fell to a gory death during the years when advanced handgrip strength was evolving. Failure was part of what happened sometimes.

Evolutionary processes work this way. They follow a probabilistic logic, some qualities are more likely to lead to success than other qualities, but they will still have failure rates that are different from zero. A good adaptation, for instance, may lead to a 10 percent death rate while a "not as good" adaptation may lead to a 30 percent death rate. From this mathematical-evolutionary perspective, failure is necessarily part of the game. The issue is not whether one feature will fail and another will not—the issue is more subtle, nuanced, and statistics based. The issue is whether one feature will, on average, lead to a higher proportion of successes relative to failures compared with alternative features.

Evolutionary Failure and Real Life

This conceptual stuff about how evolution works has real implications for how our lives progress. In life, you sometimes succeed and you sometimes fail. This is just how it goes. When we step back and look at organic evolution, the same exact process is true; some biological adaptations succeed (and come to typify a species) and other such adaptations fail (and come to not typify any species).

Picking Dandelions to Learn About Success and Failure

But the evolution of life is relentless, and this point needs to be included in this discussion. Ever pick dandelions in your yard? Good luck. You may start with 20 in your basket, increase to 60, and commit to "pick them all," only to find that you have picked 80 after several hours and that 85 more (that you had not seen before) are now in your sideyard—and so forth. In the evolutionary story of a modern yard, dandelions show an extraordinary failure rate (they get picked a lot)—only to be outdone by an even more extra-ordinary success rate (they find good environments and grow a lot).

What happens when you squash a dandelion plant? Does it cry? Does it say, "Go ahead without me, I just cannot do this anymore!" Or does it just follow its biological design, and disseminate seeds in wayward, random directions, with the (apparent) goal of growing more plants all over the place?

Dandelions, and so many other natural forms of life, have the greatest possible lessons for all of us; whether we know it or not. Here it is: Dandelions cannot help but fail at times. They don't seem to have evolved mechanisms designed to reduce failure at all! They don't bite—they are actually pleasant to eat (with few if any toxins)—they are helpless! Rather, their strategy toward proliferation seems more like this:

  • grow a lot
  • grow quickly
  • grow wherever
  • turn to seed asap, and
  • go back to step (a)

Ever seen a field full of dandelions? I bet you have. And that, my friend, is because this particular evolved strategy works; it, on average, is effective at facilitating growth and reproduction. My front yard in late April is a testament to this fact.

More Failure Corresponds to More Success

The irony of the dandelion: The more failure the plants encounter corresponds strongly with the more success the plants encounter. In essence, these plants are trying, and they consistently make efforts at replicating. They often get squashed. A six-year-old may decide to make a daisy chain out of them or give a bouquet to a lucky parent. A lawn mower may actually take some of these soldiers down for some time. But in the end, the evolutionary strategy of the dandelion is just so strong. They always come back.

Their general plan is simply: Grit and Perseverance. Keep at it, move forward through failure, and you will likely see another day and grow. Or at least your offspring will.

Human Success Maps onto Dandelion Success

Humans are a lot like dandelions. We try all kinds of things. For instance, if you are a kid trying out for a part in a play, you may get rejected the first year (as a dandelion may get weed-whacked in Season 1). But the dandelion, due to its biological design, keeps trying. It tries a new area of the yard, and the wind may blow it a mile away. It "gives it another go." And that may work.

Does this strategy work for you? You didn't get this particular part in this particular play. Should you just lay belly-up? Well, a dandelion wouldn't do that! Maybe try another play, another role, another venue, another group, another accent. Give something else a try, this may be the solution.

And don't get discouraged. The dandelion may fail five more times before it finally yields a plant that has just the right conditions to facilitate reproductive success. The four or so failures beforehand were just part of the process.

Think about any human domain in which success is a goal. We could learn quite well from the natural world. Suppose you want to successfully publish a scientific journal article. Well if you ask any scientist you will be told that failure early on in the process is par for the course. Any good scientific article may well have been rejected a solid three times by previous journals before it was accepted. But a good and dedicated scholar knows this and keeps at it. Just like, with evolutionarily ancient and non-conscious rules, dandelions seem to decide where and when they will take up new territory. And, like scientific manuscripts, they will probably fail, but like the scientific manuscripts of persistent and successful scholars, they will be resubmitted, ultimately to the point of production and publication.

Failure Is a Prerequisite for Success in Life

Those who do not try are those who do not succeed. The most successful among us are, without exception, those who have failed the most, as a result of being those who have tried the most.

The greatest scholarly successes ever came on the heels of mountains and mountains of failures. And that is OK. That is natural. The greatest dandelion fields in the world were also preceded by fields and fields of lawnmowers and poor soil conditions and other forms of dandelion adversity. But, based on their evolutionary history, dandelions are like the honeybadger, they just don't care! So they came back!

And humans who are trying to accomplish something can learn a lesson here from their sisters the dandelions. Perfectionism has little place in production and optimization. Grit, effort, and persistence trump perfectionism in cultivating success in many areas—in dandelion reproduction and in human production.

Whatever You Are Doing, Channel Your Inner Dandelion

Be like a dandelion. Try, expect to fail; try, deal with a failure; try, deal with a different failure; then, one day, succeed. You will have a field full of dandelions, a vita full of publications, or a classroom full of students who understand the material. Or whatever it is that you are striving for.

Realizing that the failure-to-success ratio in any endeavor is high should go a long way to helping people stay on track and move toward their goals.

Based on this reasoning, the most successful among us, in any field, are those who have failed the most. And as a corollary, failing a lot is highly predictive of ultimate success and innovation, in any field. This is part of the deal of who we are, and understanding our evolutionary roots helps us get exactly why failure is ultimately (if ironically) predictive of success.

So you want to succeed in your life endeavors? Then harness your inner dandelion. Smile at adversity, welcome failure, and realize that hard work and perseverance—peppered with failures—are great predictors of success in life.

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