Testing to Failure

May 9th, 2007 by Steve Pavlina

Testing ideas through direct experience is among the best ways to learn and grow.  If you want to know if an idea really has merit, test it under real-world conditions.  Then you’ll have your answer.

For example, suppose you want to ask someone out for a date.  One simple test would be to go right up to the person and ask.  Within minutes you’ll know the answer.  Yes, this is common sense, but how common is it in practice?

Unfortunately most of our tests are run only in our minds, and in that realm all kinds of problems can arise.  Some of those problems include:

  • Fear-based thinking. You can psyche yourself out, mistakenly assuming the test will fail.  “Most new businesses fail, so I’d better not even try.”
  • Over-simulating. Too many mental simulations of the possible outcomes will just confuse you.  You’ll make the challenge seem much bigger than it really is.  “I have no idea how my boss will react if I ask for a raise, so I’d better be prepared for anything.”
  • Taking unnecessary risk. You may overestimate the chances of success, thereby overcommitting resources when a small test would have demonstrated your mistake cheaply.  “This new MLM program will surely make me rich, so I can afford to go into debt.  Just look at all the glowing testimonials!”
  • Overestimating failure. Even if your test fails miserably, you’ll recover.  If feeling rejected and embarrassed is the only real downside, but there’s a major upside if you succeed, then you’re overinflating the risk if you let that stop you.  “I just know if I ask her out, she’ll reject me.”
  • Succumbing to critics. If the testing stays in your head for too long, the opinions of others will start to co-mingle with your own thoughts, which will only confuse you more.  “Linda says I should go back to school, but John says it’s a waste of time.”

Imaginary testing is unreliable, and in many cases, it’s a huge waste of time and energy.  In truth you just don’t know what will happen until you try.  You may start a business, and it could take off in ways no one could predict.  Or it could be a complete failure.  You could ask for a date and end up with the partner of your dreams.  Or you could be rejected cold.  It’s great to visualize what you want, but you never really know what’s going to happen until you act.

By all means be prepared, but don’t fall into the trap of analysis paralysis.  Real-world practice is typically a much better teacher than mental simulation.  Skip the overanalyzing, and muster the courage to tackle a real-world test.

Don’t let the risk of failure faze you.  Uncertainty can be exciting.  Not knowing the outcome of events in advance makes life fun and interesting.  I suggest that instead of worrying about results, you get curious about them instead.  Focus on what you want, but be open to accepting any outcome, and enjoy the anticipation of what is to come.

When you do test, however, don’t be timid about it.  Use testing to seek out the limits of your abilities.  Let yourself run into physical walls and say “ouch” as needed, but don’t be stopped by imaginary ones.  When you test, keep testing to the point of failure.  You never know where your limits are until you run into them.  Here are a few examples from my own life:

  • Humor speaking. Over the past few years, I’ve experimented with a variety of speaking styles to explore my strengths and weaknesses.  Until 2004 I’d never given a humorous speech, so I entered a humorous speech contest that year as sort of a trial by fire.  I won the first two rounds of the contest and came in second place in the third round, and the person who beat me ended up winning the fourth and final round.  Simply by trying it, I learned I have a knack for humor speaking.  In 2006 I joined the Las Vegas Improvisational Players and performed in two live comedy improv shows.  If I’d never tested my humor abilities under pressure, I’d have missed out on some wonderful growth experiences.  Plus I made some great new friends in the process.
  • Martial arts. I’ve been training in kempo for about 7 months now, and I trained in tae kwon do for 3 years as well.  Through trial and error, I’m learning what sparring techniques work best for me.  Often this means trying new moves that feel terribly awkward.  It takes a few matches of getting pummeled before I can see if there’s any potential to a new technique.  Even the failure experiences are educational.
  • Running a software business. Straight out of college, I started my own computer game development company.  It took several years and a lot of debt to realize that business model wasn’t going to work for me.  Finally I shifted to a direct sales model that did work, and the business was profitable for many years before I opted to retire from the gaming industry in 2004.  I learned some key lessons from those early failure experiences.
  • Optimizing StevePavlina.com. I frequently test new ideas on this web site.  About 1/3 of these tests produce positive results, 1/3 are neutral or mixed, and 1/3 are complete flops.  However, when a test flops, it means I have a bad week or maybe a bad month, but when a test succeeds, it may yield a long-term benefit.  A bad month is no big whoop, but missing long-term opportunities is a big whoop.

Even when you “know” a test will flop, you should still consider going forward with it if the test won’t consume a lot of time and energy and the risk is minimal.  Here’s why:

  • You may be surprised by the results. Most of the time you run tests, the results will probably be within your expectations.  Every once in a while, however, you’ll be surprised.  And one good surprise can make up for a lot of failures.  Hindsight may be 20/20, but foresight isn’t.
  • You may be surprised by the real reasons for failure. Your test may still fail, but maybe it fails for reasons other than what you expected.  Suppose you ask someone out on a date, and you get rejected (which you “knew” would happen), but the reason for rejection is that the other person just went through a bad break-up and needs some space.  You got rejected due to poor timing, but the door may still be open.
  • You may gain valuable new insights. Real-world failures reveal tons of details that can’t be predicted accurately in advance.  Such failures build experience, and experience improves judgment.  Knowing exactly why something didn’t work can be better than just knowing it won’t work.  Your insights might not be able to turn that failure into a success, but they may be applicable in other situations down the road.
  • You’ll recover. In most cases failure just doesn’t have much of an impact.  Wounds will heal, negative emotions will fade, and money will flow once again.  Unless you somehow manage a truly spectacular failure (a rare occurrence), your stumble will be forgiven and forgotten.  Many mistakes can be corrected with the liberal use of the delete key.  For most others a sincere apology will patch things up.  And for everything else, there’s the gift of a bad memory.  :)

If you want to get good at anything, remember the mantra, “Stage time!  Stage time!  Stage time!”  Learn by doing.  Don’t sit on the sidelines, endlessly vacillating over problems that can be brought to resolution with simple, direct action.  You may fail a lot, but that is precisely how you succeed.



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