Have you failed recently? If the answer is no, then this may be reason for concern. Failure is generally considered to be the antithesis of success – but this is not necessarily true. Recent discourse on neuroplasticity (how our brain literally changes with stimulae) theorizes a positive correlation between failure and success, which suggests that failing itself plays an integral role in the learning process.
Why we are afraid to fail.
Society celebrates the success stories, but pays little attention to the failures which lead up to them. Furthermore, we have been conditioned to associate failure with countless negatives: shame, pity and poverty are just a few. With such connotations to failure, it’s no wonder why we’re so afraid of it.
In fact, a fear of failure is viewed as a socially acceptable norm. If you’re afraid of failure, then you are doing exactly what you have been conditioned to do. But here is the caveat: the fear of failure is not natural, it is something that we have learned; a byproduct of familial pressures, the educational system, and the media. Approaching new things with caution is natural, but being afraid to fail is not.
Reconstructing our understanding of failure.
If the fear of failure is learned, then it can be unlearned. An effective way to unlearn our fear of failure is to prove that it is unfounded. Reading articles such as this won’t be enough. It must be unlearned through experience – that means attempting something that you will likely fail at, realizing that failing is not so bad, and assessing the results to form a new understanding.
However, taking the first fall is only half the battle. The second half is getting back up, and trying it again with adjustments to your methodology. Every time that you fail, you learn what doesn’t work, or aspects which can be improved by using past experience as a frame of reference. From that point on, it is a matter of readjusting and tweaking until you find what actually does work.
What monkeys can teach us about failure.
A study on monkeys conducted by MIT can help shed light on the role of failure. Monkeys were given a set of related tasks. After each attempt, the monkeys received either a success or failure stimulae. The researchers found that with each success, a monkey’s brain formed neural connections that increased their likelihood of success in the next attempt.
In comparison, failures did not have a similar effect on the monkeys. Instead, failures resulted in a baseline probability for success in the subsequent attempt. The monkeys were learning from their success, but they were not learning from their failures.
So what does this teach us about failure? The answer lies in the stimulae which the monkeys received after each attempt, and how this can be interpreted in the context of human behavior. Much like the monkeys, when we fail in life we receive stimulae from our environment: embarassment, destructive criticism, etc. Our brain does not benefit from these types of negative stimulae – like in the case of the monkeys, we are better without it.
If we plan to utilize failure as a learning process towards success, we need to replace the negative failure stimulae with positive failure stimulae, in the form of constructive assessment. We need to learn why and how it failed. After all, it is not the failure itself that will benefit us, but what we learn from it.
In other words, learning from failure is not automatic, it requires conscious effort. And this is why we need to…
Engineer failure into the process.
So should we aim to fail? Of course not. In any endeavour, the aim should always be to succeed. As found in the MIT study, you will actually learn more through each success than each failure.
Instead of aiming to fail, we should engineer failure into the process of success. This means having a system in place for failures which will gather information and reconcile the experience, then utilizing it to further our understanding of what doesn’t work, to nudge us closer to what does work.
So go forth and fail, it will only lead you closer to success.