Should You Fail Like A Scientist?


Thomas Edison once said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up”.

I know that because I have that quote framed on my desk. I have it there to remind me that failure is often a prerequisite for great success.

Authors like Robert McMath agree; he argues we should fail like a scientist and become comfortable with failure.

A scientist will devise a hypothesis, test it and deal with whatever results she obtains. And if she’s unsuccessful – in other words, her experiment fails – it’s just another data point for her analysis.

Or is it? 

The Dirty Secret of Science

In the 1990s, researcher Kevin Dunbar conducted a series of studies into how scientists study things, particularly how they succeed – and fail.

Dunbar negotiated access to four leading molecular biology laboratories, and began observing the work that was conducted there.

For months, he videotaped interviews and recorded the weekly lab meetings at which researchers discussed their findings.

Dunbar’s first discovery was that researchers encountered failure all the time.

“If you’re a scientist and you’re doing an experiment”, he said later, “about half the experiments you do actually turn out wrong”.

For whatever reason, faulty procedures, or a flawed hypothesis – the results obtained did not agree with conclusions towards which scientists believed they were advancing.

But things got more interesting when Dunbar examined how the researchers responded to their string of failures.

Their reactions followed a predictable sequence. First, a scientist would blame his method; perhaps a machine malfunctioned or an enzyme had gone stale, or that he himself, had made a stupid mistake.

If the problem couldn’t be explained so easily, the researcher would then repeat the experiment several times, in hopes that the anomaly would vanish.

And if that didn’t work – he would simply put the experiment to one side.

“Experiments rarely tell us what we think they’re going to tell us,” writes Dunbar, “That’s the dirty secret of science” [1]

Dunbar found scientists chose to neglect their inexplicable results, focusing on their successes and avoided dwelling upon their failures.

The scientists had discovered a new fact, but they called it a failure.

Accept Defeat

When it comes to interpreting our experiences, we see what we want to see and disregard the rest.

Our spouse divorced us because she was selfish, not because she was unhappy. Our boss fired us because he’s a bully, not because we’re incompetent. Our physical health is a concern because we’re big boned, not because we can’t avoid the temptation to eating unhealthy foods.

This is confirmation bias: our tendency to search for, interpret, or recall information in a way that confirms our beliefs.

Simple: we believe what we want to believe.

And scientists are no different.

The reality is everyone strives at all costs to avoid failure. But failure shouldn’t be feared – it should be embraced.

“The first reason to turn towards failure is that our efforts not to think about failure leave us with a severely distorted understanding of what it takes to be successful” writes Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. [2]

Success in ubiquitous, but seldom do we notice because we believe it’s something big and tangible. Success isn’t only fame, earning six figures a year or dating a supermodel; it’s celebrating tiny wins, achieving our goals and living a value-driven life.    

“The second [reason]” writes Burkeman, “is that an openness to the emotional experience of failure can be a stepping-stone to a much richer kind of happiness that can be achieved by focusing only on success”.

Did you know Penicillin was discovered by accident because a petri dish was mistakenly left open?

An attempt to develop a super-strong adhesive was a failure for one scientist. But his failure – a “low-tack”, reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive – was eventually used when “Post-It Notes” were invented.

In 1866, a pharmacist asked his lab assistant to mix cocoa leaves and cola nuts to remedy his headache. His assistant followed John Pemberton’s recipe but added carbonated water by mistake. The result? Coca Cola was born.    

A new fact is only a failure if you believe it is. A person with a growth mindset doesn’t see an unmet expectation as a failure; he sees it as a learning opportunity.

How to Learn From Failure

Your date ‘rejects’ you. Your boss doesn’t promote you. Your business fails. These ‘failures’ happen to each and every one of us. Simple: people fail every day. But what’s important to remember is failure is not a reflection on us; it’s a reflection on the strategy we used.

Failure is ultimately an opportunity for introspection.

Here’s how you can learn from failure:

-Do a Self-Evaluation. Ask yourself, “According to whom?” How do YOU define failure? Failure for me is not trying in the first place.  Did you try your best? Good, then it’s not a failure.

-Ask Others for Advice. Dunbar found that most new scientific ideas emerged, not from presentations in lab meetings, but from the debate that followed. Breakthroughs were triggered when scientists were asked skeptical questions that forced them to reconsider data they’d previously not considered. Don’t be afraid to confide in others, especially people who might be unfamiliar with what you’ve failed in. Doing so can simplify your problem and put it into a perspective. 

-Learn from Others. No problem is new. There isn’t a failure a successful person has had that hasn’t been written about in a book. Read. Every problem is solvable. Your predecessors have solved most of them for you.

-Beware of Confirmation Bias. Remember: we believe what we want to believe. Dunbar’s scientists neglected their inexplicable results because it disagreed with their hypotheses. But what if their hypotheses failed, not their experiment?

Like scientists, we choose how to interpret reality. Our experiences are either successes or failures. But the choice is ours.

Your biggest mistake is never making mistakes, so fail fast and fail often.


[1] Lehrer, J. (2009) Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up, Available at: (Accessed: February 9 2015).

[2] Burkeman, O. (2013) The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, New York: Faber and Faber, Inc.