The First Step to Winning is Learning How to Fail

Posted on January 9, 2019

Dufer food overhead high res

Right Now w/ Joey Garcia (LinkedIn / Twitter)


What I’m Reading – The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, Becoming, and The Death and Life of Great American Cities. (I know! Three books at once?! Christmas was good to me!)

What I’m Watching – Star Trek: Enterprise

What I’m blanching  – Green beans! 


This post was inspired by the many articles praising effective failure and how in vogue embracing failure in our lives is… and a cookbook. (stay with me!) I like to eat delicious high quality food, but hate paying high quality prices so I’ve been trying to learn how to cook instead of eating out. As I’m reading The Food Lab by Kenji Lopez-Alt, I came across a section about failing that just clicked:

The first step to winning is learning how to fail.

By learning the science behind cooking, we learn the basic skills that will allow us to create our own recipes come out with something that is edible and enjoyable.

I have ruined many dishes and tried to salvage a mistake in the kitchen by “winging it” with some ingredients thinking, “hmm… this will probably taste good!” (it rarely does). With a recipe in hand, I’m confident enough to make some substitutions and I might feel a little adventurous and start to make some tweaks. The end result might be great! I start to think that I’m learning what goes well together and what doesn’t. In truth, I have learned some great cooking lessons this way, namely that bacon burns very quickly.  So by the tenth time that I’m cooking a familiar dish I’m confident that I can now cook it without a recipe and try making even more modifications. I think I’m an expert at cooking my favorite dish but all of sudden it’s ruined; the tenth time was not the charm.

Kenji squarely identifies why I might have failed on the tenth attempt. There are so many variables in a recipe that can be modified and the ingredients I used might have been forgiving, but I never truly understood the basic science of how and why the recipe worked.

Tying this cooking lesson back to effective local government:  If I know the basic principles of what I’m doing, I don’t need explicit directions and I’m then free to make effective decisions knowing that my final product will still meet my standards

This is the importance of all those policies, procedures, and best practices we are all so fondly acquainted with. Thinking back to all the times where I have failed at worked or came back with a report or decision that didn’t fare well, it was never the end of the world. I was able to bounce back from the mistakes I made because I follow basic procedures necessary and make sure to include the right people in the decision-making.

If we can extend the metaphor of learning how to cook and knowing how to properly fail, I highly recommend taking a short read of the academic article, Failing to learn and learning to fail (intelligently): how great organizations put failure to work to innovate and improve (2005). Professors Cannon and Edmondson discuss “Deliberate Experimentation” or the metaphor equivalent of changing up a recipe:

A handful of exceptional organizations not only seek to identify and analyze failures, they actively increase their chances of experiencing failure by experimenting. They recognize failure as a necessary by-product of true experimentation, that is, experiments carried out for the express purpose of learning and innovating. By devoting some portion of their energy to trying new things, to find out what might work and what will not, firms certainly run the risk of increasing the frequency of failure. But they also open up the possibility of generating novel solutions to problems and new ideas for products, services and innovations. In this way, new ideas are put to the test, but in a controlled context.


TLDR: Learn the basics, learn to fail, set yourself up for innovation! #NotAfraidToFail

Joey Garcia is a Senior Administrative Analyst with the City of Torrance, Public Works Department;  he occasionally tweets.

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