We all know failure is a great teacher. The more painful the lesson learned, the longer we remember it.
But you may not be aware of the flip side of early success. Research shows that early success can actually make it harder to maintain the objectivity you need to gain insight from future success -- and failure.
In a classic 1975 experiment, Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer had students guess the outcome of a series of coin tosses. Students were placed in three different groups, asked to guess heads or tails for multiple coin flips, and were then told whether they were correct.
"Told" is the key word: Because they didn't see the actual result, researchers could manipulate the results in a predetermined fashion:
- One group was randomly "correct" or "incorrect" throughout the series of tosses,
- one group was "correct" more often near the beginning of the series of tosses, and
- one group was "correct" more often near the end of the series of tosses.
Then participants were asked a series of questions, like whether they thought they were good at guessing. And whether they thought, with time, they could improve their skill. And whether they felt they had a knack for predicting correctly.
Those in the random group, and those who were told they guessed more accurately near the end of the series, tended to say no.
For good reason: Choosing the outcome of a coin flip isn't a skill, much less one that can be developed. Even if the last four flips have been heads, the odds are still only 50/50 that the next flip will be tails.
But that's not what the people whose "correct" guesses fell at the beginning of the series felt. They said they were good at guessing. They said they could improve over time. They said they had a knack for the task.
As the researchers write, "Early successes ... induced a skill orientation towards the task. [Participants] over-remembered past successes and expected more future successes than the other two groups. Involvement had the effect of increasing expectations of future successes and tended to increase their evaluation of their past performance."
Or, in non-researcher-speak, if I do well early, I'll think I'm smart. Or skilled. Or in some way in control of the outcome.
Later failures? Something else went wrong. Probably something outside my control.
In short, early success leads to a loss of objectivity -- even where something impossible to predict, much less control, is involved.
In business, and in life, there's an eventual penalty for self-deception. (Or, as the ancient Greeks might have said, for hubris.)
For thinking you can predict the unpredictable. For thinking you can solve the inherently unsolvable. For thinking success is an attribute you somehow possess, instead of something that must be earned.
Of course, that doesn't mean you should set out to fail, even though people say you should fail fast, fail often. Even though some say failure is the foundation of innovation. Even though Silicon Valley seems to love failures.
With that, I disagree. Do everything you can to avoid failure. But when you succeed, be objective.
No matter how smart your plan, your decision-making, or your strategy, luck likely played at least a small role. Some things happened that you didn't predict. Some things happened that you didn't -- couldn't -- control.
The key is to overcome the natural tendency to over-remember what we did well, and to forget what we didn't. That way you won't stop questioning your decisions, your perspective, and your approach to solving problems.
And you won't stop learning.