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Productive Failure: How to Keep Going When You Feel Like Your Work Sucks

“Everyone sits in the prison of his own ideas; he must burst it open.” — Albert Einstein

Einstein was right about a lot of things, but in my mind this sentiment is one of his finest discoveries (OK, the general theory of relativity is pretty good, too).

Creating—building something from nothing and sharing it with the world—requires a lot of bravery. In the end, it can feel a bit like breaking yourself free.

I’ve chronicled both my own idea prison and some of my attempts to free myself on the blog before.

But lately I’ve noticed the “prison of your own ideas” sneaking up on me in a new way: It can stop us from learning the kind of new skills that can challenge us and help us grow as people.

Do you know that learning-something-new feeling when you look at what you’ve created and think your work totally sucks? Or when you feel so overwhelmed by a new concept that it seems easier to just give up altogether?

I wanted to find some help breaking out of that particular prison. Maybe you do, too.

As it turns out, getting comfortable with the concept of productive failure—aka giving yourself “permission to be terrible”—isn’t just healthy; it can help you learn, too!

Why we always think our work sucks at first

To me, This American Life host Ira Glass has the definitive quote about that inferior, I’m-never-going-to-get-this-right feeling that often accompanies trying something new:


The short version: There’s a very good (and hopeful) answer to why this feeling hurts so much—we have great taste!

The downside is that our newly-forming abilities haven’t had time to catch up with our superior taste.

So we’re deeply, painfully aware of how bad we are.

Give yourself permission to be terrible

How do you combat this? You could stick to just the things that come easy.

You’ll be good at them, for sure, but you’ll miss the thrill of overcoming giant obstacles and improving yourself so much that you barely recognize the point where you started.

A better method for me has been giving myself permission to be terrible at new things, with the knowledge that this is the necessary first step to stop being terrible.


A post I really love on this topic lists a few reasons why this approach is preferable:

  • Doing things you suck at can still be enjoyable.
  • Doing things you enjoy, can often lead to not sucking at them.
  • Life is long, sucking is temporary.

And even though the terribleness could last quite a while, keep going and practice truly does makes perfect. (Or at least less sucky, after a while.)

A great visual exploration of this blog post draws out that well-known aphorism in such a tactical way:

when everything sucks

Bonus: Productive failure leads to faster learning

The really good news about feeling totally in over your head when it comes to learning something new is that it could be surprisingly good for you—and even help you learn faster!

Manu Kapur, Professor of Psychological Studies at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, has pioneered the cool and counterintuitive idea of productive failure.

To learn this way, students are presented with unfamiliar concepts and asked to work through them right away, without being taught the method or solution.

Research has shown that this method leads students to significantly outperform those who learn through traditional instruction and problem-solving.

Kapur’s theory is that leading students to dig deep and discover:

  • what they know
  • the limits of what they know
  • what they don’t know

actually activates parts of the brain that trigger deeper learning.

So while this feeling isn’t very fun (Kapur notes that most of the students felt low confidence after the exercise), it can be super productive.

Developing a growth mindset

To get scientific, what we’re really talking about here is a growth mindset.

Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, explains the difference between the two mindsets using students as an example:

“In a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.

In a growth mindset, students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”

fixed and growth mindsets

Because of Dweck’s studies, we know that much of your success hinges on whether you believe that your abilities can be developed versus believing that they’re fixed.

Those with a growth mindset can handle sucking for a while. Because they focus on their ability to change and grow—as opposed to those with a fixed mindset—they can see the light at the end of the tunnel and think on a time when they will see improvement.

Over to you!

How do you keep going in learning new skills when it feels hard—or even impossible? I’d love to hear all your tips in the comments!

  • Katrina Warren

    Love it. Perfect timing for two friends who are trying something new. Good advice for daily living too… If we’re trying new things (i.e. being more open, trusting new people, exercizing more) we’re going to fail some… or it wouldn’t be new!

    • Congrats on trying something new, Katrina! I’d love to hear more about it. :)

      • Katrina Warren

        I have one friend who is looking to start a blog & one who’s in a new industry after 20 years in manufacturing. They’re both inspirations to me!

        I looked for your email address to send more details, but couldn’t find it?

  • B D Baruah

    Courtney, that’s a wonderful thing to say. So apt when you launch into something and feel nothing going the right way. While training I have been always setting high goals with the intention to fail. I did this when training long distance running, and applied the same when coding a mobile app. But knowing when to stop is important otherwise you may end up destructive yourself.
    Super article. I am sharing it.

    • Wow, so inspiring, BD! Feels like you’ve got a great method for productive failure!

  • Vignesh Subramanyan

    I was putting off writing a blog post when I read this Courtney. Now it’s time to write that post :)

  • Shantelle McDonald

    What an amazing post Courtney! Thank you for sharing. I really appreciate the links you’ve included for digging deeper into some of these ideas. I just recently watched (for the third time) Carol Dweck’s TED talk ( She’s got great stuff there and it’s so powerful seeing it brought together with the other perspectives and research! So very thought provoking.

    In my challenge course training we were taught to think of learning like a bulls-eye. In the center is the comfort zone where very little learning takes place, in the middle is the learning zone which is challenging enough to encite growth, and on the edge is the panic zone, which is stressful to the point of even being damaging. Because of that training, I remind myself that the hard in my life is helping me grow. And when I feel like things get impossible, my husband is great about reminding me how far I’ve come and that whatever I’m facing is just another obstacle that will make me stronger. (He’s pretty awesome ?). It changes my perspective from a focus on the immediate concern as a problem to deal with to seeing it as a challenge and opportunity to grow.

    • Love the bullseye metaphor, Shantelle; it’s so helpful to position oneself in the right spot for growth! Your husband sounds great :)

  • Michael Jenkins

    What a inspiring way of looking at failures. I can completely relate to that feeling of sucking at something. About half way through reading this blog it hit me though.

    I spent 3 hours on Saturday teaching my daughter how to roller skate. I remember her looking at me and saying, “Dad I am terrible”. I did what came natural and encouraged her, told her it’s her first time of course your going to be terrible, but not to give up. By the end of the 3 hours she was not great but she had improved dramatically to the point that she wants to go more.

    I realize now that as children we tend to get a lot of encouragement to keep moving forward and not giving up. As adults we do not receive that as much and we start to lose that confidence. We need to set ourselves goals so we feel like we accomplished something.

    Our minds are the most powerful tool we can have. It can change everything. I really like the idea of a growth mindset. I will be implementing more of this into my life, personal and professional.

    • Wow, such a great realization, Michael! I know that having my husband and my teammates give me positive feedback and encouragement when I’m learning something new has been a major factor in my willingness to keep going. Makes total sense that we need the same thing as adults as we did as children. Thanks so much for adding that valuable perspective!

      • Rita Garcia

        Also, we shouldn’t be afraid of failure. Unfortunately, not many work places promote a safe failure environment and people tend to feel hindered towards learning.
        I was also curious, considering the big learning process that people go through at work, how does Buffer manage learning/knowledge and skills development? Could you share?


  • joehack3r

    I love mindset discussions and how we can overcome our own worst enemy – ourselves! BTW, Dr. Carol Dweck was on a podcast episode of Art of Charm… one of their best episodes from 2015:

  • Mill For Business

    This is amazing, Courtney. Thank you! :)

  • Courtney – thou art awesome.

    • Ha! I don’t always feel it (as evidenced by this post) so thanks for the encouragement!

  • Great post! Some brill food for thought and very inspirational :)

    • Thanks! It was neat to dive into the research here and realize I am far from alone on this one. :)

  • Rayfil Wong

    Thanks Courtney very useful, insightful, and encouraging.

    Growing up in Chinese American house hold, failing at grades or an attempt at anything seems permanent.

    But the reality is that failing is necessary and is a part of being successful.

    • Oh wow, what an interesting perspective! I can empathize a bit with the personal pressure to perform feeling quite strong growing up. It can be tough to strike that balance of asking just enough of yourself!

  • Morgane Sarro

    It is a great article! thank you for sharing :) I will be implementing more of this into professional life ! It is a good way to look at failures without being completely depressed :)

    • Good luck, Morgane, and thanks so much for the kind words!

  • Paul Tucker

    This is really excellent! Thanks so much for sharing – I felt a bit raw and vulnerable just reading it, so it apparently struck a nerve with a much-needed message. :)

    • Paul Tucker

      The small company I’m with is growing rapidly, and lately, it’s been discouraging that each new obstacle we conquer, seems to be met with a larger, harder obstacle. This article was a very helpful tool for our entire team – I took the opportunity to share this with the company; shared transparently on where I’m at and what I’m struggling with (AKA: sucking), and encouraged the team to keep pushing forward and growing.

      Thanks again, this genuinely was helpful.

      • Wow, that sounds like a very powerful thing to share; congratulations on a big achievement, Paul! Hoping some of your obstacles get easier for you!

  • Jon Thompson

    One of your best posts! The fundamentals of achievement. Thanks!

  • Happy to see the Growth mindset here! Core value in our company (feedly) :) Great post as always Courtney.

    • Thanks for the always-kind support and encouragement, Petr!

  • Alvin V. Mapas

    I can relate to this… very much!!!

  • Wayne Paul Broad

    I agree with all of the comments here. A fantastic article. Thank you very much Courtney.

  • Varun

    Great post Courtney! The change in mindset is key, the growth mindset and the momentum is essential! Loving the info-graphics!

    • Thanks Varun! It wa cool to discover so many resources out there dealing with this feeling!

  • bjjcaveman

    Thanks for this wonderful post! I’m embarrassed to look at the first few iterations of my blog and my first posts….

    • That’s idea, right? If you’re not embarrassed you started too late, I think is how the quote goes. :)

  • Ramona Flowers

    great read! It is really awesome to read articles about mental health, As I have read in the Consumer Health Digest,work related stress is one of the number 1 illness that plagues the u.s today. thanks for this, before I was thinking that quieting is the only way to remove the stress

  • Kaycelyn Cariaga Miquiabas

    Hi Courtney :) I was finding any blog or post which will motivate me and I found one through you. Thank you :) I am currently having a hard time adjusting to my new work. I’m trying to have a positive mindset but yet I m feeling the failure in me, everything is not going well. it’s taking me much time to finish a task which affects my productivity. When a new task is given to me I am feeling nervous and I am having a hard time catching it up. But I guess the solution on what I am going through is to keep on trying and to have a growth mindset. I hope to read more of your blogs :)

  • Battal

    An article has more than 10 articles within, common couldn’t you just summarize them into one article!

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