Fail hard and fail often is written so much in self-help literature that it has become a cliché. It is also one of the most debunked self-improvement strategies that I have come across. Having read a LOT about failure and spent a great deal of time feeling failure myself, I think that the most valuable lesson to take is one of perspective.
It is not the case that failure itself is empirically good. After all, the idea that setting to not successfully achieve your goal is clearly nonsensical. The key is that one should approach any failure as an opportunity to learn, either about yourself, about the process you’re engaged with, about decisions you have taken, about any part of what you are doing. Thinking about it rationally, the only activities you can expect to undertake error-free are those which you have practised extensively. And, at a certain point, every one of those activities was new to you. You had to learn to do them; even some autonomic functions, like seeing, have to be learned.
As tiny children, we learn everything through failure. It is by far the most efficient way to learn anything. We all learned to walk by falling over. A lot. The bit that gets you over the line is the determination not to give up until you’ve mastered it. Anyone who has children will know the look of absolute determination on a child’s face as they try to work out first of all how to stand and then how to walk. Some research indicates that they will fall over more than 50 times an hour learning to walk. Given that it often takes several days to learn to walk, that is a LOT of falling over.
The learning-to-walk example is often cited as an explanation of the value of failure. And, in many ways, it’s a good one. After all, almost every single one of us has done it. And – despite falling over a lot – we all learned to walk.
Two things, however, are often missed out of this example: motivation and fear. The first is essential and relatively easily understood. Failing a few times is, relatively speaking, easy to overcome as long as success comes soon. Failing many times over becomes harder to accept the further away success seems to be. As an 18-month old trying to walk, you’re not even considering that this equation exists. But as an adult, the decision to pursue a goal will often be based on time and energy measured against outcome. How many times is it worth your effort to try something before it succeeds? It will – often – depend on the perceived value of success.
For me, the pursuit of being a conductor meant experiencing failure often, almost constantly. Mostly these were small failures, generally of a technical nature. You could equate them to a singer needing to manage their breath better or an instrumentalist having to practice a difficult passage to get it in muscle memory. Generally speaking, these failures were positively motivational because they were relatively easy to solve and, in being solved, improved my skill level and my own perception of my ability.
Sometimes, though, the failures were large. When a performance didn’t go well and that had a subsequent effect on potential future employment. Those failures cost 100s of hours of work as well as emotional commitment to a project and faith in those who engaged you to support you properly in the process. A failure on this level is catastrophic psychologically. It isn’t just a failure at the time, it is a failure that has far-reaching consequences. It is a failure that requires enormous work to overcome, both in yourself and – potentially – in others, and those others are often unwilling to see a different perspective.
This kind of failure is not only demotivational, it has a more devastating consequence: this kind of failure produces fear.
Fear is a crippling emotion. On an evolutionary level, it is designed to save your life by preventing action. Fear says ‘don’t get involved. BACK OFF!’. It causes your brain to release cortisol, the substance responsible for stress. You become anxious, aware of possible dangers, tense. Your emotional state heightened.
Fear wants you to stop what you’re doing. ‘Be careful,’ it says, ‘you don’t want to go there. You might get injured.’
And this is where real difficulty can be found. Fear is a deep-rooted emotion. It is in a part of our brain that dates back millions of years. It is really, really old. It is also really, really useful. If it weren’t for fear, you wouldn’t be sitting reading this. Fear stopped not just your ancestors but your evolutionary forebears from dying. It made them cautious of going into that dark place. It made them careful not to charge forward without thinking about the snakes in the grass.
Fear is what kept everyone alive. So it’s no joke. It is something to be taken seriously.
But fear is what the 18-month old learning to walk has absolutely none of. She doesn’t care for anything as she crashes about from the sofa to the wall to the TV to the top of the stairs to the open cutlery drawer… Someone else will be there to protect her. And – most of the time – she’s right.
So. Understanding that we learn best by making mistakes is more nuanced than it might seem. Not all mistakes are equal psychologically or emotionally.
The key to all of this is – as I said earlier: perspective. It may be that the part of our brain that tells us to be afraid is as old as the trees and one of the most valuable systems we have for survival. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t use one of the other most valuable parts of our brain to counter it.
The Power of Rational Thinking
Being able to reason is the single greatest ability we possess as humans. And that reason can be applied to ourselves as well as to the world around us. It isn’t always easy, but it is possible to understand how you feel, to reason that feeling a different way would be preferable, and to change how you feel.
I wasn’t able to do this well before practising mindfulness. The process of clearing my mind and being focused on the present, on what is right in front of me, is enormously powerful in my being able to manage my own feelings. This has been utterly invaluable in managing depression but is just as powerful in being applied to fear.
I have been able, through careful thought and discipline, to bypass fear. I have been able to persuade myself that the positives of an end result will outweigh the difficulties. Being able to see beyond the immediate to a goal has a remarkable effect: it removes the fear. To begin with, only partially, or momentarily. But, over time, it gets rid of it entirely.
My understanding is that I am retraining my brain. I am teaching it that the expected outcome is incorrect and that the fear response is unnecessary. Over time that means that the cortisol doesn’t get released, that the physical stress doesn’t materialise, that the anxiety isn’t necessary. Over time, I am able to reprogramme myself to not experience the symptoms of fear where there is no need for it to exist.
This doesn’t remove the possibility that a catastrophic failure will happen again. But it does free me to pursue actively and positively improving myself. It frees me to allow failure to happen so I can learn from my mistakes. It frees me from avoiding failure because the consequences are frightening.
It frees me to be able to fall and get back up slightly stronger than when I fell. And every time that happens, I take a step forward. The fact of falling is an opportunity to see how to improve. As an 18-month old learning to walk, my analysis of what went wrong when I fell was automatic, it was built into my DNA. As an adult, I have to actively think about it. I have to make an effort to work out what went wrong and what to try differently as a result.
But I CAN do that. And it WILL make a difference. I might not be able to see the difference today, or tomorrow, or even next week. But, over time, I will see a difference.
Take weight loss as an example. It’s hard. And I screw up a lot. I don’t run as far or as fast as I want. I don’t lift with proper form or with enough weight. I miss a session. But each thing that goes wrong is a chance to improve. I can improve my discipline, I can improve my form, I can up my speed.
And it makes a difference.
I run 30% faster today than 18 months ago. I am 30% lighter than two years ago. Can I tell I have lost weight today? No. Can I tell I have lost weight this week? Not really. Can I tell I have lost weight in the past two months? Certainly. In the last two years? Without question.
Failure is the best method we have for learning. After all, if I don’t try and do something, I won’t ever know how to do it better. If I try to play the guitar, I will find out what I need to do to play it better. If I try to make a budget, I will learn what skills I need to do it correctly. Just because I don’t know something now doesn’t mean I can’t learn it. I won’t be any good at it to begin with, but every time I try, I have the chance to do it better.
There will be catastrophic failures in life. But it is essential that you don’t lose the willingness to get something wrong in order to better understand how to do it well. There are ways of overcoming the catastrophic failure. It isn’t easy, but it is essential. Everyone will experience some of them, most people will experience many of them. How you deal with them is a mark of how much you will get out of your life.
If you enjoyed this, please leave a comment or a like below. Let me know what other topics I could cover in the future.
2 thoughts on “Why is failure good?”
This was wonderful!