I’ve launched books that’ve failed. I did a book called “E-mails Addresses of the Rich and Famous” – Roger Ebert got really mad at me. I’ve made videotapes that didn’t work; I’ve made books that didn’t work.
My lesson was: If I fail more than you do, I win, because built into that lesson is this notion that you get to keep playing. If you get to keep playing, you get to keep failing, and sooner or later, you’re going to make it succeed.
The people who lose are either the ones who don’t fail at all and get stuck, or ones who fail so big they don’t get to play again…
If you’re talking to a pacemaker assemblyman or an airline pilot, they don’t try stuff; they don’t say, “I wonder what happens if I do this,” and we’re really glad they don’t do that, because the cost of failing is greater than the cost of discovering what works and what doesn’t.
But almost no one I know builds pacemakers and I don’t know airline pilots. Most of us now live in a world where the kind of failure I’m talking about isn’t fatal at all. If you post a blog post and it doesn’t resonate with people, post another one tomorrow. If you tweet something and no one retweets it, tweet again in an hour. If you’re obsessed with doing what everyone else is doing, because of someone saying “you failed,” then you’re in really big trouble.
- Set a goal. Decide what you want to do or what you want to learn. In science, this might be to find an algorithm that performs a certain task or to develop a model that describes how something in the world works. In business, this might be to come up with a product that serves a specific customer need. This is the same as asking a question, such as “Will this model predict what happens next?” or “Will this product serve my customer’s need?” In either case, you need to know what you’re trying to do first or what question you are asking.
- Form a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a statement that tries to explain behavior; it’s your belief about why something happens. At this point, it’s only a guess, although an educated one, based upon your previous knowledge. An example hypothesis might be “I believe customers will buy my product because they really want to protect the environment.” How do we know if this is really true? We’ll test it out.
- Predict the outcome. You need to test our hypothesis, which means understanding how feedback would come to you under two situations – (1) if your hypothesis is true and (2) if your hypothesis is false. This is a critically important step, and fundamental to being a good scientist or a solid businessperson. I could probably go into a whole other post about how critical this is (and how some really smart people aren’t as careful as they should be with this step…). Get really clear in your mind about these two things – what would the feedback look like if you are right and what would the feedback be if you are not right.
- Try it out. Create an experiment that will collect the feedback. Ideally your test will give different answers if your hypothesis was correct or incorrect, and this way you’d be able to tell whether or not you’ve confirmed what you know.
- Compare your results to your expectations. Once you have your feedback – data collected from your scientific or business experiment – you need to analyze it to see if it confirms your hypothesis or not. Is the feedback most consistent with your hypothesis or not? If the data is unclear, try a different experiment. If the feedback tells you that your hypothesis is wrong, great! You’ve learned something you didn’t know before, and you can ask another question and carry out another test to learn even more.