- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

The Virtue of Failing Fast

Basically any form of improvement is based on learning. Running a business, graduating from university or becoming a concert pianist all require learning skills. Even areas that may seem fairly straightforward, such losing weight, can require you to learn what diets and exercise plans you can stick to, and how to motivate yourself to follow through.

Since improvements are based on learning, watching your feedback cycles is incredibly important. If your feedback cycles are long and inefficient, it can take years to improve. But if your feedback cycles are short and focused, you can learn at a lightning pace.

What is a Feedback Cycle?

A feedback cycle is the smallest unit of learning. A feedback cycle consists of roughly three stages: input, process and results.

If you were trying to write a best-selling novel, the feedback cycle would be fairly simple. The input stage would involve you writing the book and getting it published. The process stage would have your now finished book processed in the marketplace where people can choose to buy it. The results stage is where you finally receive feedback on your book to know whether it will make you a millionaire or die in obscurity.

This cycle for writing a novel could take anywhere from six months to several years. Because the feedback cycle is the smallest unit of learning, you can’t actually learn anything meaningful until the entire process is complete. You might need to wait a couple years before you learn anything more about what makes a best-selling novel.

Obviously, the longer your feedback cycles are, the longer it will take you to learn. And as I mentioned in the introduction, learning and improvement are bound together. So unless you plan on getting lucky your first time, learning requires cutting down the size of a feedback cycle. That means failing and failing fast.

Why Failing Fast is Important

If you pick up just about any self-help book, you’ll get the same information: making mistakes is a good thing. What I don’t hear often enough is that you should be making those mistakes faster.

My first e-book [1] for sale on this website took me one month to develop. I already had a strong grasp of the topic, so writing took only two weeks, the remaining time was spent producing and gathering preliminary feedback on the book. Although the book has been one of the most successful launches from this site, there are still many things I would have done differently in marketing and selling the e-book.

I compare this e-book with my first project for the website, an interactive program [2]. Not only was the complexity much higher, it took six months of hard work to develop. In the end, my one-month e-book was far more successful than my six-month program.

What’s the lesson learned here? With my first project, the interactive program, I didn’t fail fast. If I had kept the feedback cycles short, mistakes made in the first month could be fixed before they went into the second and third months. Beyond the first month, most of my efforts were wasted since I still hadn’t received feedback for the mistakes made in the beginning.

Failing Fast Applies Everywhere

I’ve been using large projects to explain the virtue of failing fast, but this is a principle that applies everywhere. How often do you see someone who spends four years on a degree only to realize that he or she doesn’t like the job? Have you spent months in a relationship only to realize different values will pull you apart?

The Ignorance Sweet Spot

Failing fast doesn’t mean you should rush through projects, to get to the results as quick as possible. This can be counterproductive if rushing keeps you from giving your best effort in the input stage. Writing a novel in three days, complete with spelling errors and missing chapters, and getting it self-published won’t tell you much about what it takes to be a best-selling author.

Instead you need to look for the ignorance sweet spot. This is the size of a cycle that has just enough complexity that you aren’t sure whether it will work out. But at the same time, it is simple enough so that any mistakes can be easily isolated and improved upon.

My six-month project had hundreds of unknown factors. The size of these unknowns meant that feedback was useless. If the project didn’t go well, I wouldn’t have known whether it was the marketing, production or design that caused the problem. If you go beyond the ignorance sweet-spot, your learning actually drops–even though you waste more time.

How to Hit the Ignorance Sweet-Spot and Fail Smart (not just fast!)

School makes learning far too easy. No instructor would start teaching calculus to students who haven’t learned basic algebra. Formal teaching is set up neatly so that each unit builds on, but doesn’t escape, the material before it.

Real life, however, is messy. If you have a goal, it can be hard to decide what needs to be broken into one feedback cycle before moving onto the next. When you are your own teacher, how do you divide up the lesson plans?

The best strategy I’ve come up with to tackle this problem is to pick 2-3 independent factors to build on past projects. For my upcoming book, I picked a couple areas I had never worked on before and added them to the next project. This included hiring web designers, using AdWords and conducting more thorough market research before creating the product.

For projects, you need to get your own sense of just how much you can add to the learning curve, before your feedback cycle becomes meaningless. I’ve found that it is easy to let your enthusiasm dream up projects that ruin any possibilities for learning. In trying to do everything at once, you end up learning nothing.

To improve in other areas, try just picking one targeted improvement to get feedback on. This could take the form of a personal experiment, where you test only one factor to decide whether it is effective. Test a new diet for thirty days before you draw conclusions about its effectiveness. Try a new productivity habit for a month to see how it works.

Fast Failing and Patience Aren’t Opposites

It can take years to become successful in an endeavor. It may take you years to build a profitable business, earn your black belt or become a millionaire. Fast failing shouldn’t be equated with impatience, an entirely different sin.

A fast-failing attitude works with patience, since you are looking at the big-picture instead of individual results. Expecting to succeed right after the next project will cause you to want to lengthen feedback cycles. Patience allows you to fail-fast since you know it will build knowledge first and achievements later.

Implementing a Fast-Failing Policy

Here are a few tips for starting a fast-failing policy, now that you understand why it is important:

  1. Make Use of Trial Periods – Not just to change habits, but to experiment with everything. A thirty day period forces you to constrict years of learning into just one month. The opportunities for personal experiments are endless.
  2. What are the Learning Points for Your Next Project? – You should always be learning something. If you slip into a routine of just doing the same things, you are stagnating. Every project, from blog posts to house building, should involve new ideas you want to test.
  3. Does it Need to Take That Long? Who says a book needs three years to write? Many people have written one in only a month. Look for ways you can make smaller projects that keep your feedback cycles shorter.