The Concept of Strategic Failure

Failure is an extremely loaded word for pretty much all learners. To not complete something, is to fail. Whether it is a life goal, a relationship, or a set of math problems. Failure as a construct links directly to identity, which means that with enough overlapping circumstances relative to this perception, one can “feel” like a failure, or “become” a failure in one’s mind. But the truth is (in my humble opinion anyways) is that failure is the only way to become better at anything. 

But let’s redefine “failure”. Let’s just see failure as an unsuccessful outcome for a wanted goal with a certain amount of data that influenced one’s decision. 

You can only learn from action, and not all actions are successful, so by default the majority of all learning comes from ‘failed’ attempts. It is the only way we improve at walking as babies, learn speech and develop social skills. We make mistakes, we look ridiculous, we fail a test or two, we say the wrong thing, then learn from all these things to ensure more successful behaviors and habits.

I believe these actions are all strategic by nature, because they all force you to adjust, test and redefine your methods to improve and ensure future success. 

No one can 100% predict future success without certain kinds of data, and it is only by “failing” and constantly trying different strategies do we eventually get closer and closer to a point of confidence where we can predict the outcomes of our chosen tasks. This is why, just three months ago, I knew I’d be able to memorize all the Jyouyou Kanji based on my previous attempts. I had enough data, and had “failed strategically” enough to know what not to do, and why it didn’t work. 

Memorization is strategic failure at its best. With most words, phrases and expressions, you remember a chunk of the word, while forgetting the rest. For example, if i’m trying to remember the word:

鯨(くじら)KUJIRA (whale)

I might say “KU” and forget “JIRA”, or I might say “K” if I don’t remember anything beyond that. Both of these are “failed attempts” at retrieving the word. But no one expects to remember a word instantly and it is only stressing the brian through repeated “failures” that the brain prioritizes the memory and solidifies the connection. By using better techniques for memorization, we are doing what is called strategic failure. We want to make the rights kinds of errors, relative to the brain’s normal function ,to lead us closer to our goal faster. 

Trying to remember words, is strategic failure. You brain will fight to remember the final piece of whatever you are trying to remember, until it sticks. Looking at memoization or learning as a form of “strategic failure” changes the entire perception of most of your acitvities.

For example, do you know that the act of walking is the avoidance of falling? Each step you take is from the mastery of balance that eluded you as a child. In a similar vein, driving is mastering the avoidance of collisions. To properly memorize words and all aspects of a language, we must somehow give ourselves hundreds of thousands of instances to ‘fail’ as the brain organizes and prioritizes this information.


A fantastic thing happens the more we “fail”. The brain eventually autocorrects. If a young child playing soccer keeps kicking the ball the wrong way, on attempt 1000 he or she will notice the data from all the missed shots has now vastly improved their accuracy and technique after strategically doing the wrong thing long enough. Each attempt incrementally reinforces better and better form, until form becomes good. The brain auto-corrects and improves. It is no different with words, phrases and speaking. After a baby notices that trying to get up from the ground to walk is too difficult (because a baby is physically weak) a baby will “somehow” figure that propping itself on a chair (removing the initial demand of standing up) allows it to practice walking more from an upright position. The brain figures this out automatically. After “failing” many times, it realizes that it is better for a baby to standing in an ambulatory position then fail (as it provides more useful information), versus putting a ton of energy into first getting up, then walking instead of just walking.

What we do in elite learning is set the conditions of failure so that they are most beneficial to us, in far less time. This is it what underpins pretty much all “efficiency hacking” though i daresay it has not been described like this.

Mistakes are NOT Bad, They Guide You

This means that making mistakes are actually quite a good thing. Misreading a Kanji lets you know the next time you see it not to make that error. Mispronouncing a word, or saying a word “close to” what it really is reminds you that you have not 100% mastered the word and need to work on it.

when you are dealing with thousands of Kanji, thousands of words and hundreds of readings, we cannot recreate the natural, slow (and hard to track) nature of information learning that happens from birth to about four years old. We must be far more strategic in our failure (i.e attempts and the information we gain) to get results at lightning speed.

Strategic Failure and Physical Training

A well-known aspect of training is bringing yourself physically to a point of exhaustion (called muscle failure) to eventually make them stronger. You run five miles dozens of times to train for running ten.  Your muscles fail and fatigue, get uses to the strain of your training and improve with diet and rest. You strategically fail the muscles in a way that sets you up for the best results for your targeted event.

So as we dive into learning thousands of words, doing hundreds of hours of immersion and so on, we must be hyper aware of things that fatigue us and ensure that our fatigue is helping us, that it is strategic and useful.

We need to make mistakes in a manner that forces the brain to begin the auto-correct process sooner. Nothing beats this like heavy training, which is part of the True Cost of Language Learning I mentioned in a previous article.

This is why just jumping into a very complex process and putting in hours that aren’t leading you in a specific direction tends to waste energy and ultimately lead to burnout. Just like an elite athlete, it is better to be exhausted after a workout, knowing it is making you stronger, versus being exhausted and none of what you did has helped you make any improvements.

Failure Feedback

As I continue testing all these methods, what i’ve also come to realize is that tracking is THE most important thing when undertaking monster tasks. Only by knowing where you are, can you see if you are close to your goal. Strategic failure also gives you this feedback. If I “think” i’m making gains in my language, and speech is wonky, i can barely remember any words and I can’t understand ten percept of what i listen to after a certain period of study, then my ignorance reveals what I’ve “really” been doing.

What this does for me is simple: I do not expect massive gains in situations where I have not ensured a lot of constant, strategic failure. 

This observation might seem obvious, but the average person tends of have very high expectations of themselves that has no logical connection to their work ethics or methods. Without relative expectations and understanding of certain psychological and structural basics, it is far more likely to do activities that ensure true failure (which is not completing a task).

By understanding this as a fundamental aspect of my work flow: I do not expect massive gains in situations where I have not ensured a lot of constant, strategic failure. 

I cannot “complain” if I am not reaching a certain point, because I will know exactly why. I cannot “worry” about where I will reach in the language because it will be illogical. By “fatiguing the weak points” I ensure they are stronger on a subsequent encounter.

I’ve said on this blog before, it is nearly impossible to put a lot of work into a reasonably efficient process and not make progress. 

If I spend three hours a day consistently practicing conversation with a qualified teacher/partner, it is almost impossible for me not to improve. Three hours of conversation would expose me to hundreds if not thousands of instances for strategic failure daily that pushes me faster and faster to the point of auto-correction and internalization of the correct form of what i’m aiming to do.

Without going too deeply into that line of thinking, this rule: I do not expect massive gains in situations where I have not ensured a lot of constant, strategic failure

Sets up two things fundamentally: Much lower stress (relative to overall g0al) and also a certain type of accountability. I keeps me “aware” but without the pressure that comes from beating myself up.

If I want my listening comprehension to get better and i’m not listening to anything it can’t get better. If I want my Kanji reading to improve and i’m not reading documents, manga or something that forces me to see the Kanji, make errors and auto-correct, there is no way I can improve. 

The dangerous perceptual problem is that after learning how to read Kanji, many learners believe they have the ability to handle the language, when in actuality, they now have the ability to strategically fail at levels that EVENTUALLY GIVE THEM full access to the language in a far more efficient way, in a shorter time window.

For each of the 2,136 Kanji there is an average of 1.8 readings, meaning there are a minimum of 3,844 words associated with learning these Kanji. Based on what i’ve shown, you can learn ALL the 2,136 Kanji in 8-10 weeks, but not all the extra readings.

But ask yourself, is it better to be able to read 2,136 Kanji (giving you access to about 2500 words immediately in 8-10 weeks) OR struggling to learn each and every reading in a non-linear manner that can take an unpredictable amount of time? Years perhaps?

Being able to read all the Kanji allows me to read stories, transcripts and articles. It allows me to make mistakes, and expose myself to thousands of repetitions. It allows me to start the process of “failure” which means the “process of memorization”. My “failures” in reading will all reinforce my brain’s natural “auto-correct” process and my reading ability will drastically improve. What’s cool also, is that this happens quite quickly relative to the work put in.

Looking at it top down:

Stage A

8-10 weeks to learn 2,136 Kanji and 297 readings (by proxy about 1000-1,500 words)

Stage B

next 8-10 weeks working on the first 3,800-5,000 words with sentences, grammar etc.

this means for a very dedicated learner, by Month 4 you will have trained to such an extent that you can comfortably handle quite a bit of the language as you have really trained your brain with tens of thousands of instances that all overlap. You are strategically leading yourself towards mastery by ensuring the conditions of massive failure.

The more mistakes you make, the faster you learn. In fact, the act of failing so often has a reverse effect when things kick in. Your powers of recall will show you that the work you put in has not resulted in your current success and you will feel far more confident (and have no issues continuing what you are doing).

I am not saying any of this is simple at all. Such an undertaking requires massive psychological and physical determination. I write these articles in such detail to emphasize that so much of the ability to be consistent and work around the natural conflicts and stress that arise in life is relative to our psychology, versus our methodology.

When you set things up so that you are guaranteed to get results and understand why and also understand where you will slip, you are far less likely to fall too hard.  This is the true “secret” that many learning masters have. They have a master psychology that has made them quite creative in the face of massive challenges, as the only true block oftentimes is perspective.

The thing is, you can’t experience this kind of strategic failure just sitting down and going through an Anki deck. You can’t experience this type of failure by sitting down and just watching TV and taking notes either. At some point, situations have to be created where you are forced to fail (and thus massively reinforce what you have learned as a base). last example. With my German experiment I trained all the Grammar up to a B2 lower C1 level just going through flashcards set up with sentences I had to translate.



Each card had one grammar pattern and about 10-15 sentences. I think the total number of these cards was about 1000. I set it up so that with each card I knew I did around 10. So 10 cards equals 100 reps, 100 cards equals 1000 reps. Based on information with the Glossika learning system. They estimate one needs about 30,000-50,000 reps to start gaining the feeling of fluency. So lets say I work my way through a 1000 cards in 2 weeks. That’s 10,000 reps or 20,000 in a months and about 40,000 in 2 months. Of course I battled with certain patterns, messed up some words, forgot often but eventually, you just “remember it” and then your brain extrapolates this with stuff you listen to and your mind gets blown. But you must set the conditions that lead to this point. 

My research shows me that THIS is the most important thing before you start. It to put a lot of energy into ensuring these types of conditions are met before you spend a few months of your life dedicated to such a task.

What This Means for Me Moving Forward

I want to teach what i’ve done and i’ll be working on the course shortly. However, I’m implementing the other phases in the same manner as I did with my successful German experiment.

Let me break it up so this doesn’t go too long. But yeah, Fail fast and fail often. Be strategic and it will bring incredible gains.





About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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