Fail Better: Mental Models for Overcoming Failure

forces of habit mental models to fail better

Fail Better: Mental Models for Overcoming Failure

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better” -Samuel Beckett

As humans, we are not particularly interested losing, in any context. Scientists who study human decision making have identified several our predisposition to value losses over gains—failing can be biologically hard to embrace. It’s in our evolutionary recipe to take loses harshly, and therefore, getting excited about failure has been a bittersweet lesson for me.

My accomplishments take a central role in creating the narrative that I embrace. Failure, in a way, is the deconstruction of those ideals. Any idea I have of myself can easily be second-guessed from a circumstance in my life that proves otherwise.

But that’s just it.

It isn’t the event that is harming me, it’s my mindset. So how can we reconstruct how we think? What does it take to reinvent failure? How can we fail better?

Enter Mental Models.

“The chief enemy of good decisions is a lack of sufficient perspectives on a problem.” - Alain de Botton

 "A mental model is an explanation for how something works."It is a system, principle, theory, aphorism, heuristic and much more. Call it what you want, its central tenet though is essentially something you carry around in your mind to help interpret the world—broadly I like to think of it as a mental representation of how to think about stuff.

Commonsensically, the particular way you perceive reality will yield a specific perceptual experience. That means when you’re, upset, angry, or feel like a failure part of the reason is the given subjective lens you consider part of the experience—your mental model.

When you train your brain to rethink failure, you win.

Over time I have gathered a toolbox of mental models to help better grip failure by reconfiguring my perception. Failure is not a loss, but an opportunity. These are specific methods to disarm yourself from defending against failure, let’s get right into the 3 mental models for overcoming failure.

Failing Faster

“It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” – Bill Gates

When Henry Ford released the Model A it was awful. Mechanics found problem after problem from customers complaining about the quality of the vehicle.

But he and his partners already knew that—Henry Ford wasn’t looking for perfection, he was looking for opportunities to lose.

Subsequently, Ford fixed every single problem. With the information gathered from releasing an imperfect model A, Ford was able to produce the Model T. Ford opted to fail first and succeed later. Without the data from the Model A failure, Ford would have never been able to create a car that is now considered a pivotal moment in automobile history.

Fast failing is a longtime praised in business as the most effective methods for reach maximum effectiveness or efficiency. As a mental model, failing fast can be used to test out any habits, behavior routines that we would like to incorporate into our lives. When we get failure out of the way we save resources that would normally accumulate over the long term, develop correlations for what works, and avoid what doesn’t.

The Obstacle is the Way

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” -Marcus Aurelius

Originating from Stoic philosophy and popularized by bestselling author Ryan Holiday, the obstacle is the way is a mental model to better embrace the realities our lives that are bringing discomfort by changing your perceptions, actions, and willpower.

What do you get from running away from obstacles? Not much. Any discomfort you experience can be addressed. So when you choose to respond to obstacles with a realistic perception of what they are—your method for breeding success—you see how much control you really have over every situation.

Transform adversity into advantage.

As a mental model, viewing any trial that is to come in your life as exciting, invigorating, and perhaps even something to be grateful for it will bring a new life to all experiences—intentional living starts here.


It’s been said many ways but the first time it really clicked was a few months ago when I heard Daniel Pink say this…

“If you want to know what an experience is going to be like, find someone similarly situated and ask for their experience. A very good way to avoid failure is to learn on someone else’s dime. Let them make the mistakes and then learn from those mistakes. I much prefer learning from other people’s mistakes than from my own.”

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. When I fail at something. I look for people who have done the same. Now I potentially have a collection of people who have been through the same situation and the best part is, they survived.

So not only does this settle any anxiety about an outcome being the death of me, it gives me information about where to go after that seemingly tragic event occurs.

Take how others have failed to broaden the perspective of your own failures.

Surrogation as a mental model is the meta-mental model—it is a model that heeds advice about the benefit of collecting mental models. The models above are themselves all methods of surrogation. What top performing humans have used or monitored in their own experience are the best tools for addressing your own issues.

We are not too different from one another. So when you find yourself failing, look towards those who have ventured into the same valley as you, how did they survive?

Fail, in fact, fail a lot; you’ll learn far more.

Many of these mental models for interpreting the world are similar. In one way or another they all state when things don’t work, make a serious effort to understand why, and you are bound to be successful. Part of living an intentional life is bringing meaning to even the banalest. Don’t minimize your failures, become aware of each event, and use the mental models above to modify your perception. Soon you’ll see failure will no longer be an inhibitor, but the contributor to all of your achievements.

My Motto: Today is the best day of my life

I treat every day as the best day of my life because no matter the praise, disappointment, obstacles, or success I know that I am doing everything that is in my control to live to the standards of my greatest self.

How? It all starts with my 5 habits. Find out more here.

One thought on “Fail Better: Mental Models for Overcoming Failure

  1. “Fail, in fact, fail a lot; you’ll learn far more.” If I learned anything from my first few years of Undergrad it was this. I believe for many failure correlates negatively for one’s sense of pride. Learning to let go of these emotions associated with failure grants us the opportunity to grow so much more within the field of that thing we did not originally find success in.

    Fantastic read. I think plenty of undergrad students could learn from this post. Thank you!

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