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4 things we all need to know about failure

Failure is an inevitable part of life that we must learn to embrace if we’re going to fulfil our potential.

In recent years, the start-up world has popularised the idea of ‘fail fast’ – make your mistakes, learn from them and move on. But this idea can be applied in other walks of life too. Here’s four things we all need to know about embracing failure:

1. We expect to succeed

Psychologist Kim Stephenson says that, as humans, we have evolved to survive and we all have the ‘optimism bias’ – the expectation that we will succeed – so it comes as a shock when things go wrong.

“This is the same as what would have happened back when we were cavemen,” Stephenson explains. “We evolved as hunter-gatherers so because we’re expecting things are going to go right, we’re expecting that when we go hunting we’re going to catch something, we’re expecting that when we gather food we’re going to remember where the stuff we want to gather is, we’re not expecting that we’re going to get lost and wander around for three hours. And when it doesn’t work that’s actually quite painful.”

2. We respond to failure like it’s physical pain

On a biological level, we evolved systems to deal with physical pain before we needed to deal with social threat, Stephenson explains. “The flight or fight response – or fight, flight or freeze. That’s to deal with physical threat but we see social threat in the same way because as we evolved, the physical system had already developed.”

As a result, when we experience failure, it activates the same things in our brain as if there had been a physical threat to our lives. “All the neurotransmitters and chemicals in the brain when we fail are the same as that sort of fear and it really hurts. It’s a really physical reaction. It’s the same sort of pain. That’s why some people when they’re humiliated cry, or feel sick.”

3. Failure can kick off a downward spiral

While some people will be able to move on easily from failure, others will start to expect that they will fail if they try again.

Stephenson describes: “Take for example, someone who fails in a relationship, a guy whose girlfriend dumps him, it’s ‘I’m worthless’ so it’s personal, ‘it’s everything I do, I’m useless with girls, no good at work and rubbish at sports, nobody likes me’ so it’s everything that he touches because of this one instance of failure, and it’s permanent, ‘it’s never going to be any different, I’m never going to have a relationship because I messed it up with her’. That’s a pattern that can occur.”

4. We need to embrace failure

There’s a fine line between embracing failure, learning from mistakes and building on them in the future, Stephenson says, admitting that there’s no easy formula to work from. But he does have some advice: “What people have to do is to be as coldblooded about it as they can, to examine their assumptions and to accept that they have failed and there could be all sorts of reasons for this. This is where having a group of critical friends is crucial. You need people who are willing to be brutally honest about where you might have gone wrong.

“There’s not a lot of point in beating yourself up about it. The thing to do, to use the Edison quote, is not blindly persist, but work out if this is one of the 99 times you have to fail in order to succeed or if it that it wasn’t a good idea in the first place, or maybe it wasn’t the right time.”

By Natalie Clarkson

Advancing quality and opportunity in non-formal education


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