How to Fail Well (II/II)

Felipe Cerón, Entertainment Editor

Felipe Cerón (MBA ’22) interviews HBS professors about their failures and learnings.

Following up on the past issue (in which we interviewed entrepreneur and HBS Professor Christina Wallace), we interviewed Professor Iavor Bojinov, who teaches TOM at HBS. He holds a PhD and an MA in Statistics from Harvard and a MS in Mathematics from King’s College London. 

Bojinov’s research interest is at the interface of causal inference, experimental design, and large-scale computing with the overall goal of democratizing statistical methods in order to help firms innovate and grow. No simple stuff.

Given his background we thought he had several notorious insights from a life in academia, and that these probably came accompanied from a number of failures. He gracefully shared his major learnings from them.

First thing we talk about when we start going into the topic is a book called Growth Mindset. Bojinov jumps straight into it, saying that it is a must read for people seeking a more positive perspective on failing. He mentions that he read it at a young age, and it became a turning point in the way he faced life.

“The biggest reason people suffer from failure is because they don’t have a growth mindset. The book mentions how there are two types of mindsets, fixed and growth. These get ingrained in our minds when we are very young, thus being very hard to change. 

On the former you are wired to believe your successes happen thanks to fixed attributes, like intelligence or physical attributes. For example, continuously praising a kid for being very smart will condition him to believe the reason they are doing well is a function of their intelligence, not their effort. The flipside is that when they eventually don’t do well (which is bound to happen at one point) they will believe that they are not intelligent. Given their past conditioning they will tend to think that if you are smart everything will come out easily, which is not always the case, even for smart people. Since intelligence is a fixed attribute, failing becomes exasperating and a sign that something is wrong.”

Even geniuses fail often. Maybe even more than regular people. Maybe that is what allows them to reach a status in which we call them geniuses. The Beatles, George Washington, Ronaldo, Albert Einstein all geniuses in their own accord, invested their 10,000 hours and reaped the benefits of an enormous number of failures. Did they have a growth mindset? The Beatles could barely find a gig in Hamburg and were rejected from numerous record labels. John Lennon failed his examinations and his teachers said he was headed for failure. George Washington surrendered in his first battle and was demoted. Ronaldo did not make it into Flamengo. Einstein was an okay student in his school in Switzerland. Definitely they would not have gotten far with a fixed mindset.

“On the contrary, if you have a growth mindset, the conclusion in the face of failure is not “I’m not good enough” but  rather “I didn’t put enough effort.” There is an experiment in which subjects take a test and some are randomly told they worked really hard, and some are told they are really smart. Just by saying that sentence you generate an impact. On a subsequent test, the people that were told that they worked really hard had significantly superior results. We see an example of that in HBS Online students. People that do bad on the first stages of the program are a lot more prone to drop off, probably because they’re visualizing the failure from a fixed mindset.”

 What changed in your perspective on failing after reading the book?

When you feel you have a major failure, you should not focus on the failure itself, but the path you carved out that was dependent on the failure being a success. We tend to believe that a failure renders the whole plan a failure, but there are many paths to success. Maybe you are over-indexing on the failure regarding your end goal and, in reality, there might be another way.

Receiving feedback also changed. Before, I felt it was a criticism of me as a person and that made me afraid. A major eye-opener was realizing that feedback was not a criticism towards me, but a measure of how well I understand and how much effort I put in. Constructive feedback means there was something I didn’t understand but that I eventually can. 

Another thing that helps with tough feedback is understanding that the person giving it probably put in a lot of effort to do so. This must mean that they really care about my improvement.

What has been a big failure for you and what did you learn from it?

My last year in high school in England. Based on the topics you decided to focus on the last years, you’d apply to a university for a particular subject. You can apply to only six to seven; it is very limited and competitive

I have an older sister; she was top of her class and got into Oxford, which is very hard to do. I thought I should copy my sister; it seemed great and that it could apply to me. I had no particular reason to do any of that stuff, but I also saw everyone going in that direction.

I applied to Oxford for economics and management and got a conditional offer. This means that you get in if you get the grades you are supposed to get on your finals. I was lazy and bombed my final exam in economics, which I thought I really liked. Instead of getting the A I needed, I was one point below and got a B. This meant Oxford rescinded their offer.

It was a huge shock to my system. It made me question a lot of things, mainly, why was I studying something that I wasn’t willing to put an effort into? 

It was at this point that I stumbled into the Growth Mindset book and it made me rethink a lot. I took a year out. I wanted to understand what I actually liked, and that year was crucial to reflect. I decided I liked math, and that led me to Harvard, data science and becoming a faculty member.

What changed for you after that learning?

I understood that while it is good to have a plan, it is key to remain flexible in the process. This makes failing much easier to handle. If one path is closed due to a failure, another one opens. This small change in mindset brought a huge impact on me.

If you fail, don’t sit and think “what if.” On the contrary, be committed and embrace where you are 100% of the time. If you spend even 10% of your time thinking “what if” then you are not hearing the now. That is probably the biggest failure. Further, I started linking success and failure to hard work and determination, avoiding being overconfident. This will allow you to learn as opposed to being upset by your mistakes.

 The last thing that I learned from it is optimize for what makes you happy. If you are reflecting on your failures, try to realize if the path you are in is something that genuinely makes you happy. Failure is detrimental if you are doing it for something that doesn’t make you genuinely happy.

Do you talk to people about your failures or keep them to yourself? Any rituals?

I try to celebrate them. In academia you have a ton of failures. For every published paper you have, there will be two to three rejections. When this happens to me, my mentality is to think “cool, let me see why.” And sometimes I disagree as to why the paper was rejected and can’t get over the fact completely, but I do my best to turn it into something good. Sometimes I open a bottle of wine and celebrate with my friends our collective rejections.

Also I don’t assume bad intent, on the contrary. At least people that review papers put in an effort to write how they felt. I don’t think they did it to be malicious. They wanted to help me improve.

How do we get comfortable with failure? How can we change our mindset to thinking it is something good?

It is all about the mindset and redefining success. Just notice that the most successful people are actually the ones who failed the most.

The reason I love experimentation is because everything is done to learn more, it inherently has a growth mindset. It is not whether I moved a metric, but rather if I did something that made me learn. I am optimizing for learning, and the more you fail the more you learn.

Additionally, make sure you have direction and flexibility, embracing failure as part of the process. Find me a failure that someone is upset about that is not a necessary step for a long term goal. Show me a successful company that has not had a ton of failed products. Google lens was a failure; what would have happened if Google just gave up?

Now, this doesn’t mean I don’t get nervous or stressed about failure, but just knowing there are so many paths to reach success gives me perspective. I find it helpful to define success in these terms.

Another great example of how failures led to success is Don Rubin, a famous statistician that got rejected from six or seven journals. His ideas were so new and radical that people didn’t quite get them. Eventually he persevered and essentially created a field. He has thousands of citations! 

How would you motivate people to be more open to sharing failures? Is this a thing we should be doing? 

We have biweekly meetings with all junior faculty and senior members, like a round table in which we share early stage research. At the beginning we have 10-15 minutes saying good and bad things that have happened through the research. Here even senior faculty say how they got their papers rejected, and it has a tremendous impact!

What I mean is that the motivation needs to come from the top. If you think they have never failed, you would be terrified of failures and nevermind sharing them. If you hear failures from people you admire it changes your perspective and willingness to share. Following this mentality, I try to share with my PhD students the rejections I get from my papers. Another example is that when I teach I tend not to pick the strongest people to set the pace, because if you have someone modeling perfection everyone else feels like they can’t make mistakes. 

What would you say about failures to HBS students?

Just because you fail at something it does not mean you are a failure. You need to disentangle it, step back and reflect on your life and you will find the sum of your successes is greater than you thought.

Which mindset is better? Which one do you have? What steps will you take towards a growth mindset?

Felipe Cerón (MBA ’22) is a Chilean who previously worked in consulting and retail. He is a musician, and he is an avid fan of film and television. Having a laugh over a beer, getting in a challenging workout, and reading inspiring books are among his favorite pastimes. While he thinks sparkling water is the best beverage ever created, he is also currently the owner of the most luxurious home bar in SFP. He sures hopes to learn a lot about failure before finishing his MBA.