A Recipe For Failure

On redefining our relationship to failure—and why learning from our mistakes is like baking a loaf of bread

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My failure as a teacher has made me who I am today.

That might sound like a strange thing to say, but if I hadn’t failed as a teacher, I wouldn’t be here, writing this. For most of my life, I was on a very specific pathway, and failing in the classroom made me reassess why I had made the decisions I’d made. Failure forced me to see myself clearly.

In this week’s interview with Valeria Taylor of Loba Coffee + Pastry, she talks at length about the importance of failure in her life.

You never know. Now I can say that you have to be open to failure and it’s not the end of the world. The biggest lessons that I’ve learned in business and in this life have been through failure. I’ve failed miserably and massively in making recipes and running a business, and every time that I fail, I learned something new. And that also keeps me going.

Failure is an interesting subject, partly because we still haven’t figured out a nuanced way to talk about it. In most public discussions, failure either acts as a conspicuous justification for criticism or is treated as a brief stepping stone in one’s journey towards triumph.

For instance: Several years back, Business Insider published a list of famous people who had experienced failure before achieving success. The article paints failure as a simple pitfall that one endures before greater achievement. The failures of these so-called “successful” people are used as literary devices, as moments of dramatic irony before the hero emerges victorious. We already know how their stories end—with fame and riches and glory—and their failures become nothing more than curiosities, or inconsequential footnotes. Now that they’ve “made it,” they presumably never need to worry about failure again.

Failure is so much more complex—and more interesting—than that.

I like to think of failure as a tool of reassessment. If you’re successful all the time, it’s hard to parse out if that’s a result of you and your skills, or a reflection of luck and happenstance. Whereas success is like a door opening, failure is like banging your head into a mirror. You’re halted from moving forward, but you get the chance to observe, and to readjust. It can feel like practicing an instrument—to practice is to fail over and over, but with each failure, you’re gifted another tool, and greater insight.

Looking into the mirror of failure is a precious opportunity—as long as you’re ready for it. (Studies have shown that sometimes, we’re just not in a place to learn anything from our mistakes and slip-ups.) Failure has the potential to make a person better by tangibly presenting evidence of what didn’t work. Think of it as a quiz: If you guess the right answer, you get to move on from the question. If you get the question wrong, then you have the blueprint for the right answer. You get a chance to recalibrate, to learn why your response was incorrect, and to take a different approach next time.

But the biggest reason I want to examine our understanding of failure is because I also want to rethink our concept of success. About a year ago, I had David Hu as a guest on the podcast. He’s the former owner of The Peccary in Millburn, New Jersey, a coffee shop that closed in 2019.

In that role, David always made it clear that his first priority was The Peccary’s staff. He paid baristas far above minimum wage, worked the schedule so most of his employees had three days off in a row every week, and made it clear that his job was meant to serve their needs, not the other way around. But because The Peccary shuttered, it’s easy to draw a line between his attitude towards work and the closure of his business.

Ashley: Is there anything about closing that makes you think that you should have done anything differently, or does it shake any of your values at all?

David: No.

I am very, very proud of the fact that I started the shop, built a shop, built this team, did it the way I did it. If anything, the lesson is, I wish I had more money to do this—not to burn, but if I had an another opportunity to do another shop, I certainly would have just done it exactly the same way.

Maybe logistically it will be different, for different markets, different demographics, but my value system of supporting the baristas has not changed. It has to be that way because I’m closing on my own terms. I’m closing. And my baristas have felt like that was the best job that they ever had. To me, the only failure that I had was I did not have enough people come through the door. I was successful in everything else.

So much of the discourse around failure feels like a toxic part of “hustle culture”—there’s a myth that if we fail enough, and keep working 16-hour days, that we’ll somehow find success. This binary understanding of failure and success is written into the fabric of our capitalist society, and subtle riffs on the subject—like how tech culture has embraced the idea of “fail fast, fail often”—show how we’ve moved further away from the potential of failure to be a highly personal learning tool. When failure, and therefore success, are so rigidly defined in our capitalist context, it’s hard to treat them as transformative forces. When we fail now, what are we left with?

My boyfriend, like a lot of people, has been baking bread during the pandemic. Every time he makes a loaf, he critiques it, noting what he could have done differently. Sure, he’s failed in creating something “perfect,” but we always end up with a totally edible loaf of bread on the table. And he then has the drive to evolve his techniques next time—and the inspiration to continue his creative process of discovery.

Maybe we should think about failure the same way we approach baking bread. Mistakes are an essential motivation, a pivotal part of the process. They aren’t deviations, or missteps on the road to success—they’re a driving force, the reason success is possible at all. Failure will be with us always, as long as we work towards any goal. It’s in our best interest to learn how to welcome it in, to treat it as the essential ingredient it is.

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