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When was the last time you failed ? February 26, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, statistics.

Forgive me for saying this, but if you haven’t (failed), a huge setback is probably just around the corner !

I look around to see if I know somebody who hasn’t had the opportunity (note the use the word of the word ‘opportunity’) of having to bite the dust, of facing one of the life’s biggest setbacks, and its hard to find any. And even if I do manage to find a handful of such twenty some-things who indeed have had a jolly good ride all their life, it’s probably only because their time ( and ‘opportunity’ ) is yet to come.

I wonder if the person who coined the adage – “Every dog has its day” was really talking a day where one finds redemption, that unbridled joy of success or if it’s a day of dejection and despair. This is no cynicism or jealousy, this is simply a realization that there will always be times in our lives when life will hand us a rude shock in terms in failed project, a broken relationship or crushed ambition. I have had many of those myself too – and I have known people around me – friends and family members who have – who have been through some real tough times. Life, I guess, does not spare any of us.

A study of our attitudes to success and setbacks can be interesting indeed. I have seen different people go through motions and emotions of failure rather differently. There have been people who have withdrawn into a shell – out of humiliation and loss of confidence. And there have been those who have done so for a different reason – seeking a becalmed and mostly objective reassessment of circumstances in order to evolve a different strategy for the future. There have also been those who have forever downsized their expectations from themselves. Its amazing how some of us can be – no amount of success can boost our confidence, but a single setback can cause irreversible damage to our assessment of our abilities and strengths.

I have an interesting question to pose – what amazes me is not why people fail – but why people are successful at all! For most things we aim at, the probability of failure is far lower than that of success i.e. there are far more ways of getting something wrong than getting it right. If It is not true by nature, its true by design – the multiple choice questions are designed with more wrong answers than questions – this is to diminish the role of luck and effectively help separate the grain from chaff. It is a reasonable argument that we do not guess our answers when we write our exams – but what about the person who set the questions. If he had to choose 50 out of a bank of 100 questions and if he had chosen every even numbered question instead of an odd numbered question, the result might have been different. As an aside, I have always wondered why they aren’t called “multiple choice answers“– the choice we have to make is from the answers, not the questions!

My personal opinion on setbacks is not only that they are not accidental – they are inevitable! It’s impossible to do everything and do everything right – such a thing would violate the natural and empirical laws that govern our society. It’s probably Ted Roosevelt who said that one who never fails is one who does nothing! So infact
, I think it makes us look stupid when we expect to be successful in whatever we do. All you can do is minimize them and when do they happen, reduce the likelihood that such and similar setbacks repeating by learning broad lessons from them.

I understand that statistics and empirical science is probably not the only way to look at this – it doesn’t motivate anyone to tell them that probabilistically, they are (and in fact, each of us is ) more likely to fail than succeed. Or worse still, I don’t recommend that when your friends are in trouble, you tell them that it was inevitable and that they deserved it!

In conclusion, this is not an attempt by a desensitized unromantic statistician to invoke the laws of probability to explain success and failure in society. I myself have suffered the ignominy of failure many a times before and appreciate that success, failure and our response to them are far more multi-layered than that. It is however, imperative to remember that sometimes its not poor judgment alone, or the lack of preparation or preparedness or the proverbial black cat – it’s the empirical laws that govern human behavior and their consequences that have a role to play in things going wrong. We all understand this in some sense – and so there is no much novelty in what I suggest here – we have always known these factors, except we collapse them in all into one word – “bad luck”! It’s probably a word we must use more often – not of course as regular alibi but as a pragmatic tool to handling setbacks.

I hope our society exercises more tolerance in cases of one-time failures, (especially our own) and dare I say, at least a little skepticism of a one-time success!



1. One « Epistles - February 26, 2007

[…] blog is 1 year old today. And although this blog started on the inevitabilities and virtues of disastrous personal failures, fortunately, its been a bad example of […]

2. Harini - December 5, 2009

I often contemplate over this and I feel that life is about learning equanimity and applying it – to be able to take both success and failure, the good and bad with a balanced head on our shoulders sort of frame… Isn’t that what the scriptures teach us anyway, to accept whatever comes our way with humility. And I think we go through the paces of life and its ups and downs in an effort to strike this balance.
The ones who do, become saintly. For the rest of us, it is yet another failure that we take head on with a smile. 🙂

3. henderson real estate - July 17, 2013

Just take a look at the long road that silver took.
s part of Sony-ATV Music Publishing Catalog, which includes the Beatles songs,
that Jackson had previously used for taking massive loans to support his lavish lifestyle.

Joel Teo writes on various financial topics
including Las Vegas Real Estate.

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