[Photo: Martin Sanchez/Unsplash]

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” The age-old advice from literary genius Samuel Beckett is passed down to everyone from novelists to startups. But how, exactly, does one fail better?

In an op-ed for Fast Company, SFI External Professor James Evans (University of Chicago) and his colleagues demonstrate that when organizations and individuals succeed after failure they follow a distinct path. Conventional wisdom suggests that success after repeated failure results from some combination of luck, specific strategies, or individual traits. As Evans et al show, however, what distinguishes the path of progress from the path of stagnation are abrupt shifts that resemble tipping points — the kinds of patterns that we see in physical-state transitions for water.

What makes these tipping points happen for some and not others? Those who follow the path of success tend to learn in a particular way. They understand what components of their strategies are working and they revise those that aren’t. They don’t scrap everything and start again; instead, they improve intelligently. The ones who fail better, in turn, are more likely to experience the mark of success: the breakthrough.

Read the op-ed in Fast Company (January 16, 2020)