Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner. We’ve been making Freakonomics Radio for a while now, and there are two themes we’ve come back to again and again. The first is the value of persistence — of staying the course, of not giving up. Our friend Angela Duckworth, a research psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote a book about this; it’s called Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Here she is on our sister podcast No Stupid Questions:
Angela DUCKWORTH: I think the reason why there are all these aphorisms about not giving up, and maybe why so much of my research has focused on the psychology of staying the course, is that sometimes the road not taken, the track that you want to switch to, is appealing not because it is objectively better, but because it’s objectively easier, just in the short run.
In other words, we give up because we’re lazy, or maybe impatient or intimidated, or we’re scared to fail. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Duckworth is saying we might be better off by learning to tough it out. But! The other theme we have often explored, is pretty much the opposite of grit. Back in 2011, we made an episode called “The Upside of Quitting.” Here’s my Freakonomics friend and co-author Steve Levitt, more recently:
Steve LEVITT: It is a compliment to be called a quitter precisely because we live in a world where so many forces push us to persist far too long at failing endeavors.
Now, Levitt is an economist, not a psychologist. And his ideas about quitting come from basic economic concepts. One of them is called opportunity cost. That’s the idea that every dollar, or hour, or brain cell you spend doing one thing is a dollar, an hour, or a brain cell you can’t spend on some other opportunity. There’s another idea called the sunk-cost fallacy. A sunk cost is the time or money or effort you’ve already spent. The fallacy is the belief that, since you’ve already spent all those resources, you’d be foolish to quit. But in reality — this is what economists argue, at least — those sunk costs are a distraction, and if what you’re doing isn’t likely to work out, you should stop throwing good money and time and effort after bad. Now, that makes sense too, doesn’t it? But it does leave you with a dilemma. If you are in the middle of a project or a career or a relationship or a journey, and it’s not going so well, how do you know whether the answer is grit … or quit?
Amy EDMONDSON: What a great question!
Gary KLEIN: I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that.
EDMONDSON: There’s no objective criteria that are going to announce themselves to say, “Go right, go left.” So, you’re going to have to make a judgment.
KLEIN: It’s a question of what kind of resources you have, what’s your tolerance for pain, what are the alternatives? There’s that kind of reluctance to admit that you’ve wasted all of these resources.
EDMONDSON: If you’re a child learning to ride a bicycle, please don’t quit! If you’re someone who thinks this particular paper is the best thing ever published and every single journal rejects it, there does come a point where it’s probably worth quitting.
The thing about quitting is that it’s usually seen as an admission of failure. And so we are solemnly counseled to never quit. Consider Winston Churchill:
Winston CHURCHILL: Never give in, never give in, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.
You’ll run into that Churchill quote in a lot of the literature around grit. But: context matters. Churchill gave that speech at his old school in October of 1941, when Britain was almost single-handedly trying to hold off Nazi Germany in World War II. The threat his country faced was literally existential. So you can see why quitting wasn’t an attractive option. But for the rest of us, in most situations where we’re thinking about grit versus quit? The decision isn’t nearly as obvious. As we’ve been discussing in this series, we humans are almost pathologically afraid of failure. What we like are stories of success, and of perseverance. So the best possible story is the one where our hero encounters many struggles but shows grit, refuses to quit, and ultimately wins the battle. Those are the stories we hear in fairy tales, in lectures, in books.
But shouldn’t we spend some time hearing the failure stories too? Can’t they be as instructive as the success stories? This is an idea I’ve been kicking around for a long time. It goes back to when I was in graduate school, for writing. Most of us were young, earnest, hard-working writers, and it seemed that the obvious path to success was to emulate other successful writers. So we read, and wrote, and read, and wrote, and read some more. And we wrote a lot of short stories that tried to be Raymond Carver; a lot of novels that tried to be Virginia Woolf. I did not find this to be a fruitful path. It struck me that great writers are great because of some unique combination of factors that are, by definition, inimitable. So why are we trying to imitate their success?
But there was something I found really instructive. When I read the other students’ writing, and it didn’t work — if it was boring, or pretentious, or confusing, or if it lacked self-awareness — I could see that failure, right there on the page, in a way that was hard to see in my own writing. In other words: I found more inspiration in learning how writing can fail than in trying to replicate writing that had been deemed a success. Maybe that’s just me; maybe this idea strikes you as ludicrous; but, hey, I’ve got the microphone today, so I’m going to go for it. Today on Freakonomics Radio: an episode full of failures!
Melanie STEFAN: Sometimes I thought, like, this will never be me, right? Like, I will never be that successful.
John BOYKIN: I respect tenacity. Sometimes tenacity is directed in a nonproductive direction.
Jill HOFFMAN: If you fail as a woman, you had no business being there in the first place.
Travis THUL: Every single bit of feedback we received was this is a great idea, “but”…
Grit versus quit: which side are you on? Part 3 of our special series, “How to Succeed at Failing,” begins right now.
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Let’s begin our stories about failure in a domain where failure lurks around every corner: invention. I’d like you to meet our first victim.
THUL: Fantastic. Travis Thul, I am a director of operations and senior fellow at the University of Minnesota. Also, a Reserve Coast Guard officer, currently serving with the Joint Staff.
Travis Thul has a variety of degrees in electrical engineering, including a doctorate. In his day job, he specializes in what’s called technology management; one big focus is retraining workers for the modern economy.
THUL: We offer programs in medical-device innovation, electrification, engineering, security technologies. We’re working with some corporations right now on how to transfer skills from folks in traditional oil and gas industries and migrating their skills into hybrid and electrified industries.
In his day job, Thul is not a failure. At least I’m pretty sure he’s not; I don’t have his personnel file. His failure goes back to more than 10 years ago, when he was a junior officer on active duty with the Coast Guard.
THUL: This was the United States Coast Guard Telecommunications and Information Systems Command, just south of Washington, D.C., adjacent to Fort Belvoir. And when you’re junior officer on active duty, you are officer of the day on a rotation, which means you are on site for 24 hours and you’re responsible for security, making sure doors are locked, gates are locked, nothing crazy is going on. That evening rolls around, and I am at my desk. And I’m hungry, I want something to eat. Like most young engineers, I had a supply of ramen noodles. I’ve got my secret stash. So I grab a pack. In my building, we had a little tiny kitchenette. You know, 50 or 60 old coffee cups that haven’t been washed. And miscellaneous packets of Chinese seasoning. And I open the microwave and it looks like somebody just microwaved spaghetti in it. I’m just really struggling to figure out how I’m going to get this dehydrated block of goodness into an edible capacity. And I notice that there is a coffee maker. So I grab the coffee pot, I fill it up as much as I think necessary. The ramen would be broken in half because you can’t actually fit it through the hole in the top of the pot. So break the ramen up. But the problem is the water ratio is way off. The drip mechanism is not appropriate. And then you can’t stick a spoon into a coffee pot, right? Like, the ergonomics of it is a fail. But desperate times call for desperate measures. So I was able to get a 60 or 70 percent cooked ramen meal. And as I’m, like, trying to get the fork into the thing and get the noodles out, I’m thinking to myself, if only I knew an engineer. You know, I feel like there’s something here. I start doodling on some paper, and think the next day, a friend of mine from Milwaukee who I went to college with, who is a mechanical engineer, I called him up and I’m like, “Hey, I got this crazy idea.”
The idea was for a device that Thul came to call the Ramen Now! That’s with an exclamation point.
THUL: The Ramen Now! is a Keurig for ramen noodles, which are the most-consumed noodle product on earth, with hundreds of millions of packages eaten annually. We can do to ramen what the Keurig did for coffee.
Thul and his friend from Milwaukee, Jiju Johnson, started to build prototypes. Their first attempt was a massive contraption; over time, they got it down to the size of a Kleenex box.
THUL: It blew my mind that something like this didn’t exist. Like, every college student would have, in my opinion — I would have had one. My grandmother would have bought me this for Christmas. Like, “Here you go, this is —” like, every grandmother would buy this for their kid in college. It seemed just too obvious. But lo and behold, no one had ever put it together.
Thul was excited. He thought the Ramen Now! might be the next George Foreman Grill.
THUL: We got some prototypes. We successfully pursued some patents. And we were very successful in pitching the product to major U.S. appliance brands. And the feedback we received consistently was, “This is great, this is awesome, we’ll sell millions. We just need you to pony up $200,000 or $300,000 upfront for the tooling and the manufacturing.”
That’s when Travis Thul learned a hard reality: most firms, at least firms in the home-appliance business, are not willing to invest their own money in developing new products. You can see why this might make sense. There are a lot of home inventors out there, and it’d be easy to go broke funding them. On the other hand: there are a lot of home inventors out there, and many of the products we all use today were developed not in the R&D lab of a big company, but in the garage of some home inventor. Eric von Hippel is an economist at M.I.T.; he co-founded the M.I.T. Entrepreneurship Program. We spoke with him a few years ago for an episode about the power of home invention. The episode was called “Honey, I Grew the Economy.”
Eric VON HIPPEL: Every field we look at in terms of the basic innovations, about half were done by users. And it’s fantastic. Companies very seldom mention the user-developed roots of their innovations. In all our studies, what we find is that the producers lag the users. So, the first PCs were developed by users.
Okay, so maybe the Ramen Now! machine wouldn’t be quite as revolutionary as the PC. But it looks like we’ll never know.
THUL: My experience was, if you’re not inventing an app that has very low overhead and very easy distribution potentiality, building a novel kitchen appliance is much more difficult to convince people to throw hundreds of thousands of dollars your way. We ran out of prospective companies to license to. And resources to make it happen. As you go through this process, people know what you’re working on. So friends, parents, “Hey, how’s the project? You were really close right, what happened?” Every time that question comes up, then you have to kind of recite, well, in as graceful language as possible, you know, we ended up failing. I’m an optimist. If you ever listen to an Adele song, like any of Adele’s work — she does good stuff. All of her songs — not all, some of the best ones, are about breakups. So, yeah, she had a relationship that didn’t work. It inspired this next, second-order effect that turned out to be really great. And I’ve tried to keep perspective that, you know, we’ve spent a lot of money, we spent a lot of time. We did something unique. We got some patents — which, for an engineer, having real, legitimate utility patents is a feather in your cap, something I’m very proud of. And I try to hope that, you know, maybe that song didn’t chart, but maybe someday there will be an opportunity to sing it again. There is nothing more that I would love to see in my lifetime to see this thing on the shelf and see one college kid go, “You know what? I’m eating slightly unhealthy food because of you, Travis.” I would love that.
Jill HOFFMAN: I thought the word “failure” was just something that you kind of said. And it really didn’t apply to me.
Jill Hoffman lives in Washington, D.C. She is in her fifties. She has worked as a chef and a caterer, a docent at the Smithsonian; she worked for a few non-profit organizations.
HOFFMAN: I haven’t really found that sweet spot of: “Oh, this is what I do very well, and it comes easily.”
But she never gave up.
HOFFMAN: Really, a firm believer of perseverance, and if you build it, they will come, and the only way to fail is to quit. And you give it your full force, and you will succeed. I mean, everybody else has.
When Hoffman says that “everybody else” succeeded, she’s talking about her family.
HOFFMAN: Yes. My father is Dick Rutan. He was the first person to fly around the world nonstop, non-refuel, through bad weather and flying over hostile countries in a plane that if you threw a pencil at it, it would go right through the wing. He is part of the duo most people know of as the Rutan brothers. I like to call them the modern Wright brothers, because his brother, who’s my Uncle Burt, is a revolutionary aircraft designer has designed probably 50 different aircraft. So he’s done crazy things like build experimental aircraft that look like they’re flying backwards, using Volkswagen engines, all the way to a rocket sending people to the edge of space.
I knew about the Rutans through my oldest brother, Joe. He’s a former Air Force pilot who fell in love with those experimental planes; he built and flew a couple of them himself. My brother is a pretty irreverent guy about most things in the world: but not the Rutans! He considers them aviation royalty — as does Jill Hoffman.
HOFFMAN: I don’t think I’ve ever had just a basic conversation with Burt. There’s three cylinders that are working in his brain, and whenever you’re talking to him, only one of those cylinders is spending time with you. The other two are thinking about building a new seaplane or trying to break a world record.
Jill Hoffman also fell in love with the family business. And about 10 years ago, she had an idea that she thought was worthy of her heritage. There had been a lot of talk about a pilot shortage in the U.S. Her idea would make it easier for people to learn to fly. She started a company called Path 2 Flight in 2016.
HOFFMAN: The goal was that you could find a local flight experience, book it and pay for it, all in just a few clicks from your phone.
Her idea was kind of like Airbnb — connecting people who have a spare bedroom with someone who needs a bedroom. Or like Uber: connecting people who have a car with someone who needs a ride. Simple, right? In her case, she was connecting people who wanted to learn to fly with flight schools in their area. She would list locations, prices, availability, and then you’d use her app to schedule lessons. That was the idea. Now she just had to build it.
HOFFMAN: I thought: “How am I supposed to sell this platform? How am I going to show it to the aviation industry if it’s not there?” I just needed something to show them.
So, she hired a web developer.
HOFFMAN: At first, it was wonderful because the web development team, they understood what I was trying to build, and they added to it. And they said, “We solve problems.” You know, “What if a 14-year-old books a flight? What if it’s canceled? How do we do that?” I loved every second of it. And I thought we were on the same page, because I was going to launch it at Oshkosh.
“Oshkosh” is a massive air show held every year in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. And when I say “massive” — think of Lollapalooza and Burning Man combined, but for aviation.
HOFFMAN: We invested money in ads. And I thought it was understood that I was going to pitch, and show it, and it had to work. We were building a dummy site, and then they were going to make it live with some dummy profiles while we were building it in. And I get a call the day before we’re supposed to launch, and the developer says: “What did you mean by launch?” And it was the first time where I went, “What? What do you — what?” The communication, it shattered. And I just knew I was about to go into promoting this, I had everything on that, with a dummy site. And ironically, I got a lot people that wanted to fly. A lot of people signed up for it. But none of the flight schools saw any value with it. All they really saw was that it was glitchy.
The debut turned out to be a disaster. Flight schools weren’t interested — they were skeptical of Hoffman and her product. Most of them weren’t interested in digitizing their systems anyway. It was a terrible experience. But: she didn’t give up.
HOFFMAN: I would talk to everybody I could. Two years of reaching out to everyone on LinkedIn I could find, trying to rebuild my reputation. Just walking in, just feeling uncomfortable and trying to talk to the decision-maker and show the product, day in and day out across the country. So, after getting no and no and no — and then one day, I am at a flight school, and it’s set up like a Tesla showroom it’s very modern. Very excited. I’ve gotten to know this pilot very, very well. I was talking to him about the platform and our ideas of what we’re doing to modernize. And he said to me: “Well, everybody did it. You know, I did it that way. Everyone needs to do it that way too.” And he just wouldn’t sign in. And that’s the day I think I knew. If I can’t get this young flight-school owner that understands modernization, when he said “No, I did it that way, you can too,” I think that was my tipping point where I just went, I’m done, I have no place else to go from here. And it broke me. You know, my grandfather lived through the Depression, and I think he gave me my earliest memories of money. You pay for cars in cash and you never waste. We were always very scrappy, we didn’t grow up with money. Once I lost a $5 bill and you’d think the world came to an end. But I lost over $100,000. And sometimes in the shower I would physically just get sick. And I felt like a complete failure. The shame of it. It took me a long time to figure out it was shame, and it still hurts me. And it’s very weird to have somebody ask me about it, because I have the ability to clear a room. Nobody wants to hear about the failure — when in essence, that’s all I needed at that time. I needed a story from somebody else that said “Yeah, I failed. And oh, there’s another guy over here and another lady over here that also failed. Oh, and, you know, my cousin also did.” And if I could have had those stories earlier on, I wouldn’t have felt so incredibly alone, like I was the only one.
That was Jill Hoffman. Now, on to John Boykin, who lives in Belmont, California, between San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
John BOYKIN: I am in the communication business. I mostly design websites for a living. Being a designer, I’m in the business of solving problems on behalf of other people. And you see problems everywhere you look, and you think, “Gee, I can do better than that.” And so one day I was painting the bedroom, and thinking what a piece of crap the paint can was.
This was about 10 years ago.
BOYKIN: The thing about a paint can is that it’s guaranteed to make a mess every single time you use it, no matter what you do. It’s painful to carry, it requires a tool to open or close, it never closes right after you use it the first time. It was invented in the mid-1860s by either Mr. Sherwin or Mr. Williams, I forget which. It has had virtually no innovation in the time since. If you look at the Sherwin-Williams logo — you know, with the paint can pouring paint down over the globe — if you look at their logo from 1893, it’s the same paint can! And so I got thinking, “How could this be better?” And started just sketching out some ideas. In Silicon Valley, you’re very aware that the company, they want to do things to serve their interests. And as a user-experience designer, I’m in the business of understanding what the end-user needs and wants, and how we can solve their problems. And the two tend to be very different. The paint can is a great thing for the manufacturer. It’s a known quantity. All of their machines and robots are designed to accommodate its size and weight and everything else. It’s great for the retailer, because it fits on a shelf just right. It’s really not designed for you, the consumer.
I worked on it intermittently over a period of about five years, something like that. It was all evenings and weekends, while I had a day job to pay the rent, and to pay the people that I was hiring to help me with it. It started with pencil sketches, and then onto a computer program where I could do drawings. The lid is critical to the success of a paint can. And so I prototyped that with paper, and I interviewed a bunch of people. I learned everything about 3D printing. I learned about how you design for injection molding. I interviewed product designers. I talked to painters, I took a tour of a paint factory. I interviewed the former head of a paint factory, I interviewed a hardware store paint department managers, a recycling expert. One painter, the very first words out of his mouth were, “Who told you to reinvent the paint can?” And I said, “Well, nobody. I just felt like it needed to be done.” And he said, “Why?” It’s a logical question. Why would anybody in his right mind take on this thing that nobody asked him to do? And I never claimed to be in my right mind. So that’s the answer.
I did hire mechanical engineers to help me with it. I hired a material-science engineer. I hired a fluid-dynamics engineer because I didn’t want to be doing it all myself. I’m a big believer that one-man bands play street corners, not concert halls. And if this thing was going to be any good, it was going to have to have more than my brain involved in it. I would get my prototype of the bucket, my prototype of the lid, I would have some prototype of a gasket in there, and I would pour some liquid yogurt in, which was my surrogate paint. I would put it in the bucket and then shake the thing up, hold it upside down, tip it this way, tip it that way and see what happened. I would say the design worked as a whole, except for the fact that it leaked. The blasted thing leaked! There would always be anywhere from a couple of drops coming out to a trickle coming out. I could not for the life of me stop it from leaking to some extent. And ultimately, that’s why I pulled the plug on the project. Given the design, I would have had to start over from scratch, and I was no longer willing to keep pouring more and more of my money into it.
How much money did Boykin lose?
BOYKIN: Suffice it to say, you could go to Europe plenty of times. You could buy a car or two. You could do all sorts of things that anybody with a lick of sense would do instead. I have a wife and a cat. The cat didn’t care. My wife, let’s just say, was not a fan of this project. She’s always had a lot more sense than I have. And she was very wary of the money that it was going to take to push this thing through. She was worried I was going to get sued. She was not a fan. It was disappointing, but not terrible because the thing is that I’m the guy who tries. I worship at the temple of trying. And if you worship at the temple of trying, you have to maintain heavy denial about the odds that are stacked against you. And you have to know that your likelihood of failure is very, very high, and you have to go ahead and do it anyway. People with more sense probably would not. As Las Vegas and video games have taught us so well, the best way to addict somebody is intermittent reward. If you fail all the time, you give up and stop trying. If you win all the time, you’ll get bored and stop trying. But intermittent reward — if you succeed just often enough, then you keep coming back. “Oh, this next time I’ll do better.”
John Boykin, Jill Hoffman, Travis Thul — they all tried, and failed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, around 20 percent of new businesses fail in their first two years, and 45 percent in their first five years. So they have a lot of company. How should we think about their failure? Well, remember what we heard earlier from the innovation scholar Eric Von Hippel:
VON HIPPEL: Every field we look at in terms of the basic innovations, about half were done by users. And it’s fantastic.
And think back to what we heard from the psychologist Gary Klein in the first episode of this series.
KLEIN: We don’t want to discourage entrepreneurs from trying things out, even though the chances of success are so low. It’s not a good gamble for the entrepreneurs, but it’s good for our society.
So perhaps we should celebrate the failures of Boykin and Hoffman and Thul. Think about it. The fact that so many people are willing to keep trying, and failing, is fantastic. This is how civilization progresses. And your willingness to fail is valuable to me, because if you do succeed, I will share in that success. So give me your leaky paint cans and glitchy flight-school apps, even your Ramen Now! “The wretched refuse of your teeming garage / Send these tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Coming up: what’s the difference between failure in invention and in academia? And how can you even tell?
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In last week’s episode, we talked about medical failures, where the stakes are literally life-or-death. In the first part of today’s episode, we talked about entrepreneurial failures, which typically aren’t life or death, but which can be expensive and painful — and where the failure is obvious. But there is another realm where failure isn’t so obvious; and it’s certainly not life-or-death. What is this realm? I’m talking about academia. If you have had the good fortune to make it into this realm, with a tenured position, you can do pretty much what you want — often with generous funding from philanthropists and taxpayers. Now, I have come to know many academic researchers over the years, most of them in the social sciences. The majority of them are lovely, brilliant, right-minded people. But they are also — and I hope they don’t mind me saying this — they are also extraordinarily risk-averse. Which is probably not a coincidence. You may know the famous saying: “The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low.” To be fair, academia has been set up to be this way. That’s why we call it “the ivory tower,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world.” And that’s from a dictionary made in Oxford! Many academics I know do not have the temperament to thrive in the outside world. Now, this shouldn’t make us respect them any less; it’s just the way it is. Consider this: I happen to have a dog, one of those fluffy little breeds common in New York City; she looks more like a stuffed animal than one of her alleged wolf ancestors, and if she were set loose in the wilderness, she’d probably last around eight minutes. But that’s not her fault, and I do not love her any less! So it is with academic researchers. And when it comes to grit versus quit — well, here is the view of one person in the field:
Melanie STEFAN: I think it’s very true that scientists are very unwilling to quit. Grit got us through school, and it got us through undergrad and through getting A’s. I think it’s, like, the only trait you need in order to get a Ph.D. It’s not about how smart you are, or how creative you are, or anything — you can get a Ph.D. if you’re just willing to grit it out, essentially.
That is Melanie Stefan.
STEFAN: As you can probably hear from my accent, I was born in Austria, and then I studied biology and math at university and decided to be a scientist. I went to England to do a Ph.D., and then traveled to different places to learn and study and ultimately work in science.
Stefan lived in Scotland for seven years, and recently moved to Germany. She is a professor of physiology at Medical School Berlin, and she runs a neurobiology research lab. So: Stefan has clearly had success. But along the way, she learned a lot about failure.
STEFAN: I completed my Ph.D. in 2009. I started my undergrad in 1999, so it had been already like ten years’ worth of training. And then suddenly, after ten years’ of training for that, I wasn’t sure if it was going to work out. I applied for several grants to get two or three years of postdoc funding. And I was rejected from most of them. In terms of ego, that — I’m not going to lie — that was a bit difficult. Like, who am I really? If the thing that I’ve trained for for the last ten years and the thing that I thought I was is not actually what I’m going to do for the rest of my life? I think going into science, most people kind of think that will cure cancer or something. And then once you get into the work, you will solve problems, but it’s only like a very, very, very tiny bit of the overall problem. Like even if you do cancer research, it’s going to be one particular mutation in one particular type of cancer in one particular cell line or something. And it’s such a small, small piece of the puzzle. Also, it turns out that grit is not actually sufficient, right? It’s necessary, but you can be the hardest worker ever and something can still go wrong. That went really dark now!
Even though Stefan did eventually get the career she hoped for, all that failure stayed with her. Years ago, she was rejected for a fellowship on the same day that the Brazilian soccer federation announced they were leaving Ronaldinho, their longtime superstar, off the World Cup squad. At the time, Stefan wrote: “Cool … I am like Ronaldinho.” Here’s how she sees it now.
STEFAN: If you’re a young football player and something doesn’t work out, you know that you’re not the first person that that happens to, because it happened to Ronaldinho. As a scientist, it’s kind of the other way around, right? Like, failures are not discussed in public. I have been to a lot of talks and a lot of conferences and things like that, and speakers — famous, big important scientists — get introduced with a C.V. and it’s only like “I did a Ph.D. at this awesome place and a postdoc at this awesome place.” And then they were hired, and they got this grant and blah, blah, blah. And so when you fail, you kind of feel like you’re the only person that that happens to. You feel extremely alone with it. And so this is why I thought, well, maybe we could use a little bit more public discussion of that. And my idea was that scientists who are famous and big and successful could actually publish their C.V. of failures in order to give younger scientists a bit more perspective.
That’s right: Melanie Stefan created the idea of a C.V. of failures — a record of every rejected application, grant proposal, etc.
STEFAN: So I started my C.V. of failures. And then I have to say honestly, there were too many failures to keep track of after a while.
She published an essay in Nature — a top journal, by the way; it was called “A C.V. of Failures.” “My C.V.,” she wrote — meaning her regular C.V. — “does not reflect the bulk of my academic efforts — it does not mention the exams I failed, my unsuccessful Ph.D. or fellowship applications, or the papers never accepted for publication. At conferences, I talk about the one project that worked, not about the many that failed.” Interestingly, this essay did not make a lot of noise. Perhaps it was because Stefan just wasn’t a big-enough name. But years later, the idea got a boost from a prominent economist.
STEFAN: Johannes Haushofer published his C.V. of failures, and he was a Princeton professor. So now it was a big thing, because someone who was clearly, objectively, very successful stepped forward and said, “Well, here are the things that I failed at.” Did it on social media, and it became quite the — I mean, not viral in the sense that viral things get viral but, like, you know, science-viral. He had said that he had had a C.V. of failures for a few years, and occasionally just sent it to people who needed it, maybe a friend who had just experienced a rejection or a failure, as a way of saying, look, this happens to everyone. I’m sure that he didn’t expect such a big impact. But there was.
It’s hard to say if this idea of publicizing your own failures in academia has really caught on. From the outside, I don’t see much evidence. I still see a lot of academic lectures that make no mention of mistakes or false steps or unproductive rabbit holes. Why is that? Well, consider how tenuous an academic career can be. Here’s another story from someone in academia — at least someone who planned to be in academia.
RIDGEMAN: My name is Mike Ridgeman. I was a teacher. I was a public school teacher. That was my career.
Ridgeman taught English, and he loved it. So he decided to keep climbing the ladder.
RIDGEMAN: Did a master’s degree at Fairfield University in Connecticut, taught some more, and then applied to and was accepted to the doctorate program at Penn State University. The goal was: get that degree so I have the credential necessary to teach at a university level. That’s what I thought I was doing.
Mike Ridgeman got his Ph.D. in Education from Penn State in 2011. Not long after, he moved to Wisconsin, where his girlfriend — soon to be his wife — was already living.
RIDGEMAN: I began adjuncting immediately. I think there were four local universities that I was adjuncting in. And I’m like, “Oh, wow, okay, here we go. One of these is bound to turn into something full-time.”
An adjunct teaching job is essentially a freelance gig: no job security, no paid time for research, and no guarantee of anything better in the future. To a student in a college classroom, an adjunct professor and a tenured or tenure-track professor might look identical. But if you saw their pay stubs, you could easily tell them apart: adjuncts often earn just a few thousand dollars per course. Over the past few decades, universities have continued to create a lot of Ph.D.s while eliminating many of the tenured positions those Ph.D.s might hope to fill, replacing them with adjuncts or graduate students. As recently as 1987, fewer than half of college and university teaching positions were held by adjuncts and other “contingent” faculty, as they’re sometimes called; today, it’s more than two-thirds. And that’s where Mike Ridgeman found himself.
RIDGEMAN: When you get a Ph.D. from Penn State, you feel like you’re going to go somewhere. It just — it never did. And then you wonder, like, is it me? Did I do something wrong?
None of his adjunct jobs turned into anything more than that. He kept at it for a while. Ridgeman has grit, that’s for sure. But grit wasn’t getting him anywhere.
RIDGEMAN: You know, had a little come-to-Jesus meeting with my wife and she kind of — I don’t remember her exact words, but her message was, “I know you’ve given 20 years to this, and have put in a lot of time and effort to making a career for yourself in education, but this family cannot carry on not knowing how much or if you’re going to work from semester to semester.” And she’s like, “We need you to have, for lack of a better phrase, a real job.” And God bless her for having the guts to say that to me. I’m sure that was not easy for her. That idea you have that, “Okay, I’m going to have a fulfilling career on a campus where there are creative, thoughtful people with new ideas and just this vibrancy and this enthusiasm for learning, I’m going to get to be around that my whole life” — and then you got to flip the switch and find something else to do.
Today, Ridgeman is an “advocacy manager” for the Trek Bicycle Corporation in Waterloo, Wisconsin.
RIDGEMAN: When I went to go work for my current employer, I was picking orders for bicycles in the warehouse for $11.50 an hour. I’m like, “What the f*** am I doing here? How did I end up here, right? I have a doctorate degree in education.” And I don’t mean to say that like I — because I have friends who work at that warehouse, and that’s their career and they love it. So I don’t want that to come off in a wrong way. But that was — professionally, that was rock bottom right there, no doubt. I have somehow failed myself by not being able to get to whatever place it was that I had envisioned for myself. But more than that, I feel like I sold my wife a false bill of goods. One of the benefits of being a faculty member at a university is a free or reduced education, tuition for dependents, you know, to help the kids. And then all of a sudden, I feel like I have fallen short of how I advertised myself to her. And I feel like I let the kids down, too. I still feel like I’m a positive influence on them in many ways. Academically, they’re both doing incredible things. One’s in high school now, and one is in college. But yeah, I just — I feel like I’ve let them down in some way, too, in that I wasn’t able to do more for them.
I need to be honest with myself here, too, right? I mean, I have a wonderful home. I have a wonderful family. I have a job. I don’t have to worry about where I’m going to eat or sleep. I’m sure that I still look like a success, right? Like, my life turned out great, but that’s not how it feels. As far as blame goes, I’m certainly culpable. I — I should have, I think, done more to learn about what I was getting into. Part of my problem was I did not ask enough questions. And I don’t think I knew the right questions to ask, but I think had I just started down that road of asking questions, I would have found the right questions. I miss teaching every day. I miss those relationships. I miss — you know, I still get emails from some of the undergraduates that I taught. That’s what I miss. Getting a kid to run through that brick wall for the very first time and seeing the look on their face and they’re like, “Oh my God, I just did that?” And you’re like, “Yes, man, you did. You just did that.” There’s nothing that replaces that feeling. And I miss that. I miss that tremendously.
I have no idea if Mike Ridgeman was a good professor. Maybe he wasn’t. But think back to the data we talked about earlier: the rising share of adjunct professors, who are basically part of the gig economy, and the falling share of tenured professors, who get to have an actual career. I’m guessing when it comes to intellect and talent, there are a lot of people in the first group who are virtually indistinguishable from people in the second group. And I’m guessing a lot of them are as stunned as Mike Ridgeman that they devoted so much time and money and effort to a system he dearly wanted to belong to, but which in the end just spat him out. The tenured professors, meanwhile, are protected even if they don’t perform well in the classroom or produce good research, and in some cases even if they commit academic fraud. So if you are just starting out in academia — if you’re a young Mike Ridgeman, who didn’t make it; or a young Melanie Stefan, who did, but with scars from her failures, how do you know if the answer is grit or quit? I wish I knew; I would happily tell you, but I don’t. Coming up — more failure! In love:
Helen FISHER: Yeah, he dumped me when I was 70.
And in art:
O’CONNELL: We had spent so much time worrying about what would happen if there was a hurricane.
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By the way, I wanted to tell you about a new podcast by a friend of ours, A.J. Jacobs. A.J. writes wonderful books, and you may remember him as the live-fact checker on the game show we used to make, Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. His new podcast is called The Puzzler with A.J. Jacobs. Every weekday, in 10 minutes or less, A.J. challenges a celebrity guest to some kind of puzzle that you get to solve at the same time. You can get The Puzzler with A.J. Jacobs wherever you get Freakonomics Radio.
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Joseph O’Connell has been a maker all his life.
O’CONNELL: I had, as a child, a lot of connection to Thomas Edison. My grandfather had played with Edison’s youngest son, and he was always bringing home lab notebooks and motors and gizmos, some of which had Edison’s writings in the margins.
This was in New Jersey, where O’Connell grew up.
O’CONNELL: Of course, I never met Edison. But the next-best thing happened when I was in my early twenties and I started my studio, Creative Machines, just myself. And just by happenstance, the landlord, the man whose building I was renting, had been Thomas Edison’s last shop foreman. It was his job to direct the work every day and report back to Edison.
To say that Thomas Edison was an inspiration to O’Connell would be an understatement. Not just how Edison succeeded, but how he talked about failure.
O’CONNELL: I had heard that phrase “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways not to build the light bulb,” and of course, that led to the success.
Today, O’Connell and his studio build public-art projects across the country. Some of them are complicated pieces, with big, moving parts. He has won awards; his work is in museums. But O’Connell says the projects he remembers best are the ones that don’t work out. His biggest failure was in Houston. It’s a massive piece made of aluminum and stainless steel and fabric; it’s called “Wings Over Water.”
O’CONNELL: We won the commission in the spring of 2016, and it had to be installed in downtown Houston in time for Super Bowl 51, which was February 2017. It was going to be what’s, by some measures, the world’s largest free-standing outdoor kinetic sculpture in an active fountain. And it all had to be done in a few months. Houston is a city of immigration and migration. It’s the number one-city from which people coming from South and Central America get their first foothold in the United States. They have an economy that is welcoming. They have established communities. It’s also an extremely welcoming city to bird migration. Houston and the Gulf of Mexico-Houston interface, is where birds on the Central American Flyway stop after they’ve flown over the Gulf. And so the concept for this art is to give tribute to when a bird or a human is in a difficult spot, and doesn’t have a place to land and rest. They just have to fly days and days, without rest. So the idea was this giant set of wings that has this sine wave that moves through it along two axes, and the wings are continuously beating over the fountain — “Wings Over Water,” if you will. In an effort to be completely metaphorically true to Houston, it is moved by a large hydraulic motor that turns a crankshaft. And the wings are supported by, I think it’s 32 push rods that look like oil derricks, rising and falling.
So, things were installed. It ran for the Super Bowl. People love it. It’s the backdrop for countless social media photos. And in the Super Bowl between plays, there’s some footage of it. Then, three things happened. We had Hurricane Harvey, which hit Houston, but didn’t damage the sculpture. It was a pretty mild impact on the actual downtown. We had planned for hurricanes. It also went through Covid during a period of time when we know that the plaza was not policed, and we’d heard that kids were kind of getting in the fountain and messing around. In any event, Covid is over. We’re reopening to the public, and the sculpture’s operating. What got us was we were not prepared for the big Texas freeze. For one to two weeks, the temperature was around 10, 20 degrees, and pipes froze and broke all over Houston. So the main helix that drives “Wings Over Water” is itself a pipe. And as it dips in and out of the fountain, it accumulates water, and we had never anticipated — we had gotten environmental data and we had anticipated an ice storm coating the sculpture, and we did the calculations for that. But nothing in our assumptions led us to calculate two weeks of how much water expands when it gets down well below 20 degrees. So it went through the ice storm and there was no visible damage. And then cracks started to develop in one part of the helix. So the first thing we do is, we immobilize it. We replace that part with an identical part. And then right next to it, additional cracks developed. So we stopped operating it again. And what they decided to do as of last November was to say, you know, I think we’re just going to leave the sculpture off, as a static sculpture. And that’s the current position. And so we took that — well, it’s theirs. You know, we took that judgment a little harshly.
It’s the feeling you get when you’ve prepared for problems A,B,C, D, E, and F, and something like G or M comes out of the blue and smacks you. We had spent so much time worrying about what would happen if there was a hurricane. You know, what if somebody got hurt building it? Nobody ever got hurt building it. And the sculpture eventually made it through Hurricane Harvey. But I think this particular incident highlights one of the problems with projects and complexity. It would probably take a million dollars to totally redo the bottom part of “Wings Over Water.” And I still hold out the thought that that would be a wonderful future second act for “Wings Over Water,” if just a relatively small amount of money by municipal standards, could be raised. I will tell you one thing about Edison. He wasn’t driven by money. He was passionate about inventing the next thing. He was driven by the beauty of the things he was making. And I feel like I have that, too. And that sets you up for disappointment, for failure, because you can’t stop investing in what you’re doing.
There’s one more zone of failure that we haven’t heard about today: it’s love.
FISHER: Nobody gets out of love alive. Nobody. We all know that. But we go on.
Helen Fisher is an anthropologist who studies romantic love. What about her own love life?
FISHER: I have been extremely lucky during most of my life. I’ve lived with men long-term, two men-long term, one for 15 years, another for 18 years. Oddly enough, I’ve studied marriage for 50 years, but I wasn’t interested in marrying. I finally met the man of my dreams. I was just nuts about him. He’s a very well-known journalist, and he had interviewed me for years, and I really liked him. And we went out for about six months, and then he dumped me. Yeah, he dumped me when I was 70.
I was never angry at him. The reason I wasn’t angry at him is he was a single father going through a horrible divorce. He just came to me one day and he said, “Helen, I just can’t take on any more.” I remember he did it in Grand Central Station, and I was standing there, and I said, “Okay.” And I remember I walked home. And I just sat at the edge of my bed for six weeks playing music to kill yourself by, and crying. I mean, what else do you do? And, you know, overloading my friends with my sorrow and all that — which, by the way, after a while isn’t a good idea. You’re just raising the ghost. But anyway, what I did, though, is I never contacted him. I never wrote him at Christmas to wish him well. I never contacted him again.
I think it allowed him to realize that he was a free agent. That he could start this relationship and explore where it was going to go without having a tightrope around his neck. So he wrote to me a letter and said to me that he thought he’d made a terrible mistake. And we fell in love. And I got married to him at age 75. When he asked me to marry him, I said, “I’ll marry you, but I’m not moving in,” because I have a little nice apartment in New York. He’s got a beautiful apartment in the Bronx. But, I mean, I’m there five nights a week. The other nights I like to go to the theater with my girlfriends, et cetera.
If Helen Fisher is to be believed, the difference between success and failure is sometimes just timing. Time, after all, is the dimension of change. It isn’t hard to think of success and failure as nearly identical, as twins even, separated by nothing but a few moments. This is what Travis Thul came to believe. Thul, you will remember, is the inventor of the Ramen Now!
THUL: The feedback we received consistently was, “This is great, this is awesome, we’ll sell millions. We just need you to pony up, $200,000 or $300,000 upfront.”
That interview took place a few months ago. After he spoke with us about his failed invention, he started thinking maybe he shouldn’t have given up. He still doesn’t have the $2 or $300,000 — but he did think of a way to raise it: with a campaign on Kickstarter, the crowd-funding platform. So we got back on the line with Travis Thul.
THUL: Yeah, so the proposal to give this one last rodeo on Kickstarter seemed really intuitive. I hired a marketing team, I hired a graphic designer, I hired a mechanical engineer, a couple other folks that have helped put together the social- media presence, build the web page, build out some more three-dimensional renders. Of course, we’ve done the prototyping and the experimentation. So really, I think, putting ourselves in a position where if Kickstarter has the interest that we hope it will, we might be able to get a good product to some early adopters in the not-too-distant future.
DUBNER: What do you think your chance of success is?
THUL: This whole conversation started out of failing gloriously, right? There was a point ten years ago where I thought, “How on earth could this fail? This is such a simple concept with a huge audience, right?” This is literally the coffeemaker for ramen noodles, which everybody eats. And, of course, we were not successful the first rodeo. So I want to temper expectations. I would be happy to be surprised.
DUBNER: Would you put your odds at maybe 50-50 at least, or no?
THUL: Oh, my. Maybe there’s a 10 percent chance that we raise that $300,000. I think that’s probably, just being an engineer, I think that’s the more statistically relevant reality. But I think maybe the hope springs eternal in all of us failed and successful entrepreneurs that we get that visibility, and there’s somebody out there and says, “You know what? This has a potential George Foreman Grill-style market. Why don’t we give this a go, given that the investment is relatively small, given the market size?”
DUBNER: If there was a celebrity to link to the Ramen Now!, who would it be?
THUL: Oh, man. So I’m out of touch with pop culture, like I was — can we get the kid that played Chunk from The Goonies? I feel like that would be a great voice for my generation. Aaron Rodgers. He’s very popular, I guess, in New York, which would be a great place to go. Tom Brady. He’s still around, presumably we could go with him.
DUBNER: What if you go upstream a little bit? Like, Barack Obama might be interested, and he’s not that busy.
THUL: Yeah, Barack Obama did a very good episode with Anthony Bourdain, where they were eating noodles in Vietnam. Barack Obama eating ramen out of my ramen maker would be — I guess I could call it a day at that point. I think the Obama Now! could be a potential kitchen appliance.
DUBNER: So the last time we spoke, you said — here’s a quote from you, Travis — “There’s nothing more that I would like to see in my lifetime than the successful launching and widespread adoption of Ramen Now!” I was looking back over that transcript, and I was thinking, like, really? There’s nothing more you’d like to see? You have a family, and there’s cancer, and climate change. How do all those challenges, let’s say, compare to the problem of instant ramen?
THUL: Well, you know, if you can’t enjoy your ramen the way you want to when you want to, what’s the point of it all? What else is there?
DUBNER: Well-played sir, well-played.
THUL: World peace is very important. But I want to make sure that when we have that peaceful world, everybody in it can eat ramen now.
Travis Thul’s Kickstarter campaign for the Ramen Now! machine has just gone live. Coming up next time on the show: the fourth and final episode in our series “How to Succeed at Failing.” Here’s a question: if there’s so much to learn from failure, why is no one teaching it?
Teresa MACPHAIL: I’m going to do this experimental class, and I’m going to call it Failure 101.
And how would you feel about a museum of failure?
Samuel WEST: We have Pepsi Crystal. New Coke. We have the Theranos blood-testing kit.
Also, you’ve heard of a post-mortem when things go wrong; how about a pre-mortem? That’s next time on the show. Until then, take care of yourself and, if you can, someone else too.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Zack Lapinski and mixed by Greg Rippin, with help from Jeremy Johnston. Our staff also includes Alina Kulman, Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Gabriel Roth, Jasmin Klinger, Julie Kanfer, Lyric Bowditch, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Ryan Kelley, and Sarah Lilley. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.
- John Boykin, website designer and failed paint can re-inventor.
- Angela Duckworth, host of No Stupid Questions, co-founder of Character Lab, and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Amy Edmondson, professor of leadership management at Harvard Business School.
- Helen Fisher, senior research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and chief science advisor to Match.com.
- Eric von Hippel, professor of technological innovation at M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management.
- Jill Hoffman, founder and C.E.O. of Path 2 Flight.
- Gary Klein, cognitive psychologist and pioneer in the field of naturalistic decision making.
- Steve Levitt, host of People I (Mostly) Admire, co-author of the Freakonomics books, and professor of economics at the University of Chicago.
- Joseph O’Connell, artist.
- Mike Ridgeman, advocacy manager at Trek Bicycles and former professor.
- Melanie Stefan, professor of physiology at Medical School Berlin.
- Travis Thul, director of operations and senior fellow at the University of Minnesota Technological Leadership Institute.
- “Data Snapshot: Tenure and Contingency in US Higher Education,” by Glenn Colby (American Association of University Professors, 2023).
- Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth (2016).
- “Entrepreneurship and the U.S. Economy,” by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016).
- “A C.V. of Failures,” by Melanie Stefan (Nature, 2010).
- “How to Succeed at Failing,” series by Freakonomics Radio (2023).
- “Annie Duke Thinks You Should Quit,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “How Do You Know When It’s Time to Quit?” by No Stupid Questions (2020).
- “Honey, I Grew the Economy,” by Freakonomics Radio (2019).
- “The Upside of Quitting,” by Freakonomics Radio (2011).
- “The Ramen Now – Rapid Desktop Cooking for Delicious Meals,” Kickstarter campaign by Travis Thul.