Evidence suggests that most people struggle to grow from mistakes and defeats. Why do people avoid the lessons of failure? There are lots of emotional and cognitive obstacles to learning from failure.
Overcoming feelings of failure
Failure bruises the ego, that metaphorical seat of our self-esteem and self-importance. When we fail, we feel threatened—and that sense of threat can trigger a fight-or-flight response.
- “Fight” in the context of failure looks like wholesale dismissal of the value of the task, or criticism of the people involved or the unfairness of the situation you faced.
- “Flight” might be the more common response to failure. When we flee failure, we disengage our attention from the task that threatens our sense of ourselves as effective people.
How do we make failure less threatening to the ego?
- Observe other people’s failures. Remove the ego from failure as much as possible by looking at other people’s failures first before you take on a task yourself.
- Get some distance. If negative emotions are getting in the way of your understanding, try self-distancing techniques. This involves thinking of your personal experience from the outside perspective of a neutral third party, asking, “Why did Jeremy fail?” instead of “Why did I fail?” While that might sound cheesy, it seems to work. When people adopt a self-distanced perspective while discussing a difficult event, they make better sense of their reactions, experience less emotional distress, and display fewer physiological signs of stress. In the long term, they also experience reduced reactivity when remembering the same problematic event weeks or months later, and they are less vulnerable to recurring thoughts (or rumination).It may also help to write about the failure in the third person or from the point of view of a future self who is looking back on the failure.
- Share your own failure story. People tend to hide their own failures, out of a sense of shame, but there are ways to turn failure into success by transforming it into a story of growth. If you’re a manager, for example, consider sharing your mistakes with employees in helping them improve their own performance—which will help them (as well as you) learn from failure.
- Recognize your successes. There are other ways to shore up your own ego. Studies consistently find that experts are better able to tolerate failure in their fields, in part because they have a past history of accomplishment and future predicated on commitment. Managers can take steps to build up the egos of employees in feedback, by reminding them of how far they’ve come. They can also make learning one of the goals of any project, to encourage progress away from any missteps.
- Feel the disappointment. If all else fails, try just feeling sad over your mistakes and defeats. There is a great deal of research suggesting that sadness evolved as a response to failure and loss, and that it exists in order to encourage us to reflect on our experiences. Sadness seems to improve memory and judgment, which can help us to succeed in the future; regret can actually sharpen motivation.
Thinking beyond failure
Beyond the emotional challenge to our ego, failure also presents a cognitive challenge, meaning that information from failure can be harder to process than successful experiences. Whereas success points to a winning strategy, from failure people need to infer what not to do.
- Focus on the long-term goal. Often, we need to ask ourselves: Will my failures lead to rewards down the line? That’s why goals and commitments are important for overcoming the cognitive barriers to learning from failure. Holding a clear long-term goal in mind—such as becoming a doctor or learning to sail—can help us to tolerate short-term failure and override information-avoidance.
- Practice mindfulness. Because people almost never intend to fail, failure can be surprising, which has the happy effect of waking up our brains—and a brain that is awake learns more than a brain that’s sleepwalking. When you feel surprised by failure, take that as a signal to be mindful and to sit with it rather than ignoring it. Indeed, multiple studies suggest that practicing mindfulness—that is, cultivating nonjudgmental awareness of thoughts and experiences—can help you to grow from failure.
- Reflect on the lessons you learned. Because failure requires more interpretation and thinking than success if we’re to learn from it, we need to reduce mental loads as much as possible in its wake.
- Do less. Finally, increasing our capacity to learn by engaging in fewer tasks that present opportunities for failure. In other words, if you’re learning to do something hard, you might need to prioritize that ahead of other, easier tasks, simply taking one thing at a time. Repetition helps, too. In other words, practice makes perfect—or at least good enough.
- Practice self-compassion. Many people believe that they should be hard on themselves in the wake of failure; after all, how else would you grow? In fact, many recent studiessuggest that you’re more likely to grow if you speak kindly to yourself, as a loved one might speak to you, in the wake of failure.
- Common humanity. Along with self-kindness, this is another component of self-compassion worth mentioning. This is the awareness of our connection with other people and the universality of human experience. Failure is one of those human experiences, because it’s inevitable. It’s not a question of if you’ll fail—it’s when. The only real question you need to answer is what you can learn from the experience.
Well, there might be one more question to ask yourself: whether to keep the failure to yourself or turn it into a lesson for others. That can be scary, but information in failure is a public good. When it is shared, society benefits.
Jeremy Adam Smith