By Ray Williams, August 9, 2020
Our society cherishes success. Success defines the person, the organization, the culture. It is a clear goal for every initiative that has an outcome. It is a gauge by which one measures impact, influence, and consequence. Success is defined as much by tangible achievement of a predefined goal as it is by its polar opposite, failure. The commonly held view is that failure is to be avoided because success is to be achieved, and both cannot coexist.
We are first exposed to the concept of failure in elementary school, quickly realizing how it can affect our educational progress. Generations of students live in fear of failing tests, subjects, and, ultimately, grades, thereby being left behind to repeat the school year. This early, first experience with failure obviously colors our perception of the concept with great negativity. Defined in this way, failure is simply the opposite of success, a notion that sets the stage for the role of failure and its interpretation throughout one’s life. Nothing but perfection will suffice, as failure renders our professional efforts, view of accomplishment, and sense of ourselves imperfect.
In the early 19th Century, the term failure was commonly used to describe a “breaking in business,” or going broke or bankrupt. Over time, this purely commercial definition evolved to pertain to personal deficiency, as well as tangible accomplishment or moral behavior. How did this change occur? How did one’s financial inadequacy morph into personal inadequacy? Sandler, in his book Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, argues that, in part, this evolution reflects the interpretation of the American dream in 19thCentury America. He points out that the failures among us “embody the American fear that our fondest hopes and our worst nightmares may be one and the same….the [American] dream that equates freedom with success…could neither exist nor endure without failure.” We need failure, “the word and the person…to sort out our own defeats and dreams.” Put in contemporary Darwinian contrast, “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”
The dictionary defines failure in three ways or contexts: “a lack of success in doing something;” “something you should have done;” and “something not working as it should work.” Of the three definitions, the first seems to have the greatest credence in our society.
A moment’s reflection will lead one to appreciate how important and pervasive failure is in the normal course of one’s personal and professional life. In fact, among some highly specialized goal-oriented professions, failure is a dominant and expected outcome. In the pharmaceutical industry, the clinical failure rate for drugs entering phase II testing was reported to be 81% for 50 illustrative compounds that entered clinical testing in 1993-2004. Major baseball league batters fail to hit the ball 75% of the time (the overall major league baseball batting average for 2018 was 0.253 ). Meteorologists have an overall error rate for predicting precipitation over three days of 15%, with precipitation predicted but not observed 43% of the time, and precipitation observed but not predicted 10% of the time for San Francisco, the last three months of 2011, although those predictions have improved since then. Health economists’ prediction algorithms are notoriously challenging, with absolute prediction errors of the actual means ranging from 98% to 79%.
Failure is, of course, part of the scientific method. All well designed experiments are framed in terms of the null hypothesis, which more often turns out to hold rather than its alternate. No matter how insightful an investigator is believed to have been in retrospect, the scientific approach is one of informed trial and error in the best of circumstances, and, therefore, invariably subject to the play of chance. Given the importance of failure in scientific research and problem solving, it should come as no surprise that the current educational strategy of ego preservation by limiting challenging course work to minimize harm to self-esteem runs counter to optimal scientific education. Research and innovation in science require failure, which must be taught, nurtured, understood, and incorporated in one’s scientific paradigm. Hence, publishing negative trial outcomes is essential for the scientific enterprise, a fact that had not been widely accepted by major journals until relatively recently.
From an even broader, more philosophical perspective, failure has great importance for a number of reasons, according to Costaca Bradatan, writing in the New York Times. He argues:
- “Failure allows us to see our existence in its naked condition.Whenever it occurs, failure reveals just how close our existence is to its opposite. Out of our survival instinct, or plain sightlessness, we tend to see the world as a solid, reliable, even indestructible place. And we find it extremely difficult to conceive of that world existing without us.”
- “Our capacity to fail is essential to what we are.We need to preserve, cultivate, even treasure this capacity. It is crucial that we remain fundamentally imperfect, incomplete, erring creatures; in other words, that there is always a gap left between what we are and what we can be.”
- “We are designed to fail. No matter how successful our lives turn out to be, how smart, industrious or diligent we are, the same end awaits us all: “biological failure.” The “existential threat” of that failure has been with us all along, though in order to survive in a state of relative contentment, most of us have pretended not to see it. Our pretense, however, has never stopped us from moving toward our destination; faster and faster, ‘in inverse ratio to the square of the distance from death,’ as Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich expertly describes the process.”
According to UC Berkeley professor Martin Covington, the fear of failure is directly linked to your self-worth, or the belief that you are valuable as a person. As a result, Covington found that students will put themselves through unbelievable psychological machinations in order to avoid failure and maintain the sense that they are worthy—which, as all of us who have ever dealt with the fear of failure know, can have long-term consequences. Fortunately, the research also provides tips for educators to help students deal with feelings of failure—and help them to fulfill their true potential. Covington’s years of research found that one way people protect their self-worth is by believing they are competent and making others believe it as well.
Hence, the ability to achieve—and the quality of performance that reveals that ability—is critical to maintaining self-worth. This is particularly true in competitive situations such as school and, later, the workplace. In a nutshell, failing to perform means that one is not able and, therefore, not worthy. If a person doesn’t believe he or she has the ability to succeed—or if repeated failures diminish that belief—then that person will begin, consciously or not, to engage in practices or make excuses in order to preserve his or her self-worth both in his or her own eyes and in the eyes of others. The more intense the effort behind the failure, the more important the excuses or defense mechanisms become.
How Failure Creates Problems for Us
- Failure can make the same goal seem less attainable.In one study, people kicked an American football over a goalpost in an unmarked field and then estimated how far and high the goalpost was. People who failed estimated the goalpost as being further away and higher than those who had succeeded. In other words, failure automatically distorts your perceptions of your goals and makes them seem more unattainable. Note the word distort—your goals are just as attainable as they were before you failed; it is only your perceptions that changed. You can choose to ignore these new perceptions, and you should. Indeed, changing how you view your goals is not the only way in which failure distorts your perceptions.
- Failure can distort your perceptions of your abilities.Much as it makes your goals seem further out of reach, failure also distorts your perceptions of your actual abilities by making you feel less up to the task. Once you fail, you are likely to assess your skills, intelligence, and capabilities incorrectly and see them as significantly weaker than they actually are. Knowing this and correcting for it in your mind is important because by making you devalue your abilities.
- Failure can make you believe you’re helpless. One of the most common and strongest feelings people have after failing is helplessness. Failure causes an emotional wound. Your mind responds to this wound by trying to get you to give up so it doesn’t get wounded again—and its best way of getting you to give up is to make you feel helpless. By making you feel as if there is nothing you can do to succeed, your mind might avoid future failures but you will be robbed of successes as well—which is why you shouldn’t always listen to your feelings. But that is not the only way your mind can work against you.
- A single failure experience can create an unconscious“fear of failure.” Some people are convinced they have a “fear of success.” They don’t—they have a fear of failure. The problem with most fears of failure is they are unconscious, which means you’re not actually dealing with whether the fear is real, reasonable, or likely. Which then means you’re also not addressing how to increase your likelihood of success; you’re just trying to avoid feeling bad if you fail. This unconscious focus on avoiding future failure rather than securing future success leads people to act out.
- Fear of failure often leads to unconscious self-sabotaging. One of the most common ways people try to buffer themselves against the pain of future failure is by self-handicapping—creating excuses and situations that can justify why they failed, like going to a party the night before an exam and claiming they were tired or hung over; developing psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches that made it hard to concentrate; or magnifying a small “crisis,” such as the need to spend two hours on the phone with an upset friend, to justify why they were unable to prepare for a job These kinds of behaviors often turn into self-fulfilling prophecies because they sabotage your efforts and increase your likelihood of failure.
- Fear of failure can be transmitted from parents to children.Studies show that parents who have a fear of failure can unwittingly transmit it to their children by reacting harshly or withdrawing emotionally when their children fail—thus conveying to them, often unconsciously, that failure is unacceptable. This, of course, raises the stakes for their children and makes them more likely to develop a fear of failure of their own.
- The pressure to succeed increases performance anxiety and causes choking.When a golfer misses a crucial easy putt, a bowler gutters the last ball, or a trained singer totally misses the power note at the end of an audition song, it is because performance pressure caused them to choke. Choking happens when the pressure to succeed makes you overthink something your brain already knows how to do. As a result, you add an unnecessary “correction” that throws your brain off and screws everything up. Choking is embarrassing and incredibly frustrating but it is also avoidable because it involves overthinking.
The Shame of Failure: Examining the Link Between Fear of Failure and Shame
John Atkinson posits a link between the two basic achievement motives, need for achievement and fear of failure, and specific emotions. Atkinson portrayed need for achievement as “the capacity to feel pride in accomplishment” and fear of failure as “the capacity or propensity to experience shame upon failure.”
Atkinson’s proposition that shame underlies fear of failure has been a part of the literature for many years, but until the present research, this proposition had not been empirically documented. For individuals high in fear of failure, achievement events are not simply opportunities to learn, improve on one’s competence, or compete against others. Instead, they are threatening, judgment-oriented experiences that put one’s entire self on the line.
Shame is a painful emotion, and thus, it is not surprising that individuals high in fear of failure orient to and seek to avoid failure in achievement situations. Indeed, when possible, such individuals seek to select themselves out of achievement situations in the first place. Ironically, and poignantly, in so doing, those high in fear of failure keep themselves from the mistakes and failures that many achievement motivation theorists view as the grist for the mill of competence development.
In essence, the avoidance of mistakes and failures stunts the growth and maturation of persons high in fear of failure, which, over time, merely leads to more mistakes and failures. As such, the avoidance of failure is likely to be a self-perpetuating process in that the very process of avoiding failure is likely to serve a role in maintaining and exacerbating the tendency to avoid failure.
The science of failure: We can’t admit we’re wrong
It always helps to add some context about the subconscious biases we have in our heads about failure. Here is a few:
- We don’t take credit for our failures. We tend to take credit for our successes, attributing them to internal factors such as how much effort we put in, the skills we have or our past experience. Failure, on the other hand, is something we don’t like to admit to. Research has shown that we are more likely to blame failure on external factors like luck or the difficulty of the task.
- Failure makes us less generous.After succeeding at a task, the positive reinforcement makes us more likely to be more generous and helpful to others. If we fail at a task first, however, we’re less likely to want to help others, and less generous with our time and money.
- We literally can’t admit that we’re wrong. In Being Wrong, author Kathryn Schulz explains the problem of error blindness: “… the sentence ‘I am wrong’ describes a logical impossibility. As soon as we know that we are wrong, we aren’t wrong anymore, since to recognize a belief as false is to stop believing it. Thus we can only say ‘I was wrong.’” So even for those of us who try hard to admit our mistakes, it’s almost impossible for us to do so, at least in the present: “… we can be wrong, or we can know it, but we can’t do both at the same time.”
How to Deal with Failure
The following is a collection of ideas from research and practices that can help
- Become mindful of your self-talk and argue back. The first step in addressing any problem is identifying it. So the first thing you need to do to change your mindset is to identify when you are slipping into a fixed mentality. For example, a middle-aged writer might get a rejection for the umpteenth time and think, “Maybe I’m too old to start a writing career.” But if I remind myself that this is my fixed mindset talking, I could argue back by stating, “Then again, you’re never too old to learn a new skill,” or “Lots of successful writers started their career at my age or even later.”
- Focus on the process, not the outcome. When you get rejected, you may just want to throw your hands up and say, “I just wasted all of that time for nothing. What’s the point!” But then you can remind yourself that “failure” is just another word for “learning.” Even though the outcome wasn’t what you wanted, you still benefited from the process.
- Develop a growth mindset. Just learning that your brain can change is enough to rewire your mindset. One study found that teaching children about the brain’s malleable quality led them to adopt a growth mindset in school, boosted their motivation, and made them more resilient to failure. You can do the same thing by googling the term “neuroplasticity.” Or better yet, check out the TED Talk by growth mindset expert, Carol Dweck.
- Focus on the internal reasons for your pursuits. People with a fixed mindset hunger for others’ approval because that’s the only way they can validate their talent. They want to prove their talent, not improve But if the main reason you want success is to get others’ approval (or to become rich, which also requires others’ approval), you are setting yourself up for a world of hurt. So when the inevitable sting of rejection strikes, remind yourself that you do what you do, first and foremost, because you love it. Because you are compelled to do it.
- Praise others for their effort not just their accomplishments. In addition to changing your own mindset, consider paying it forward and changing the mindset of those around you. When a child brings home straight A’s and her parents say, “Wow, you must be a genius,” they are unknowingly encouraging her to adopt a fixed mindset. Instead, if the parents were to say, “Wow, you must have worked really hard in your classes,” they would be encouraging a growth mindset. Research shows that praising children for their effort (not their inherent talent) helps them cope with future failure and improves their performance. So the next time you praise someone for their success—be it a child or adult—highlight their effort, not their talent.
- View decisions as experiments. Recognising our mistakes is almost impossible, according to Kathryn Schulz. Since it’s so common for us to brush aside or forget our failures, a better way to learn from when we go wrong might be this approach from Zen Habits author, Leo Babauta: “See decisions not as final choices, but experiments.The anxiety (and paralysis) comes when people are worried about making the perfect choice. And worried about making the wrong choice. Those are two outcomes that aren’t necessary to make a decision, because if we conduct an experiment, we’re just trying to see what happens.”
- Start a journal. Start documenting all of your mistakes. Keep track of where these are happening: at work, at home, with friends. Did you ignore your intuition and go with a safe option, only to regret it later? Or did you take a risk that didn’t pan out? Keep a detailed account of what happened so you can start to see patterns in where you’re making mistakes and which ones you’re repeating too often.
- Don’t make it personal. Separate the failure from your identity. Just because you haven’t found a successful way of doing something (yet) doesn’t mean you are a failure. These are completely separate thoughts, yet many of us blur the lines between them. Personalizing failure can wreak havoc on our self-esteem and confidence.
- Stop dwelling on it. Obsessing over your failure will not change the outcome. In fact, it will only intensify the outcome, trapping you in an emotional doom-loop that disables you from moving on. You cannot change the past, but you can shape your future. The faster you take a positive step forward, the quicker you can leave these debilitating, monopolizing thoughts behind. Don Shula is the winningest coach in the NFL, holding the record for most career wins (including two Super Bowl victories) and the only perfect season in NFL history had a “24-hour rule,” a policy of looking forward instead of dwelling on the past. The coach allowed himself, his staff and his players 24 hours to celebrate a victory or brood over a defeat. During those 24 hours, Shula encouraged them to feel their emotions of success or failure as deeply as they could. The next day, it was time to put it behind them and focus their energy on preparing for their next challenge. His philosophy was that if you keep your failures and victories in perspective, you’ll do better in the long run.
- Release the need for approval of others. Often our fear of failure is rooted in our fear of being judged and losing others’ respect and esteem. We easily get influenced (and spooked) by what people say about us. Remember, this is your life, not theirs.What one person considers to be true about you is not necessary the truth about you, and if you give too much power to others’ opinions, it could douse your passion and confidence, undermining your ability to ultimately succeed.
- Embrace your emotions with mindfulness. Failure is accompanied by a variety of emotions; embarrassment, anxiety, anger, sadness, and shame to name a few. Those feelings are uncomfortable and many people will do anything they can to escape feeling emotional discomfort. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making says you shouldn’t try to slough off feeling bad after failure. Researchers discovered that thinking about your emotions—rather than the failure itself—is most helpful. Allowing yourself to feel bad is motivating. It can help you work harder to find better solutions so that you’ll improve next time. So go ahead embrace your emotions. Acknowledge how you’re feeling and let yourself feel bad for a bit. Label your emotions and allow yourself to experience them.
- Recognize and avoid unhealthy ways to reduce the pain of failure.You might be tempted to say, “I didn’t actually want that job anyway,” but minimizing your pain won’t make it go away. Distracting yourself or filling the void you feel with food or alcohol won’t heal your pain either. Those things will only provide you with some temporary relief. Recognize the unhealthy ways you try to avoid or minimize pain in your life. Turning to coping skills that do more harm than good will only make your situation worse.
- Develop realistic thoughts about failure. A 2010 study found that people were more likely to sabotage themselves when they were convinced a mistake made them a total failure. In one experiment, dieters who were fed pizza were told they’d completely blown their diets. Those who thought they were complete failures immediately ate 50 percent more cookies than individuals who weren’t dieting.
- Create a plan for moving forward. Replaying your failure in your mind over and over again won’t do you any good. Don’t allow yourself to ruminateon all the things that went wrong. Dwelling on your problems or rehashing your mistakes will keep you stuck. Instead, think about what you’ll do differently next time. Create a plan that will help you put the information you gained from failing into practice.
- And finally use Humor. People cope with failures and stress in life in a variety of ways ranging from distraction to getting social support. But what are the most effective strategies? New research from the University of Kent has revealed that positive reframing, acceptance and humor are the most effective coping strategies for people dealing with failures. In a paper published by the international journal Anxiety, Stress & Coping, Dr. Joachim Stoeber and Dr. Dirk Janssen from the University’s School of Psychology describe a diary study that found these three strategies to be most effective in dealing with small failures and setbacks, and helping people to keep up their spirits and feel satisfied at the end of the day. For decades, researchers have explored how humor helps patients relieve stress and heal. Melissa B. Wanzer, EdD, professor of communication studies at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., has taken it one step further, with her research on how humor helps medical professionals cope with their difficult jobs. She also looked at how humor affects the elderly and how it can increase communication in the workplace and in the classroom. Wanzer has found humor to be beneficial in other areas as well. “If employees view their managers as humor-oriented, they also view them as more effective,” notes Wanzer. “Employees also reported higher job satisfaction when they worked for someone who was more humor-oriented and used humor effectively and appropriately.” Wanzer and her colleagues found that humor is an effective way to cope with on-the-job stress – again, when used appropriately.
The Importance of Failure in Raising and Educating Children
Dr. Joseph Loscalzo, of Harvard Medical School argues contemporary American education has taken this interpretation to an extreme, doing whatever it can to eliminate failure. Driven by the view that discouraging criticism (in the best case) and objective failure (in the worst case) will impair effective learning, the educational establishment has evolved to minimize the likelihood that students can fail—a course, or a grade, or a program. Failure in this educational ideal is considered a reflection of institutional inadequacy rather than a true learning limitation of the individual. Maintaining the student’s self-esteem at all costs has been the mantra of American public education now for some time, and while it has had its benefits, especially for students who would be severely defeated by even modest failure, it has had its disadvantages, as well, creating a self-affirming culture of narcissism among many students.
While encouragement is clearly important in early education and constructive, positive criticism essential for optimizing the learning experience, there comes a time in each person’s development at which clear criticism and the risk of true failure need to be conveyed. The complexity of life, biologically and experientially, is rife with uncertainty, and in the course of its execution, rich with the possibility of failure—to meet an aspiration or achieve a goal. As parents, educators, and role models, we are not meeting our obligations to trainees unless we instruct them in the importance of failure, how to react to it, and, most importantly, how to learn from it.
“Parents are a really critical force in child development when you think about how motivation and mindsets develop,” says Kyla Haimovitz, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. She coauthored the study, published in Psychological Science with colleague Carol Dweck, who pioneered research on mindsets. “Parents have this powerful effect really early on and throughout childhood to send messages about what is failure, how to respond to it.”
Although there’s been a lot of research on how these forces play out, relatively little looks at what parents can do to motivate their kids in school, Haimovitz says. This study begins filling that gap.
“There is a fair amount of evidence showing that when children view their abilities as more malleable and something they can change over time, then they deal with obstacles in a more constructive way,” says Gail Heyman, a professor of psychology at the University of California at San Diego who was not involved in this study. But communicating that message to children is not simple. “Parents need to represent this to their kids in the ways they react about their kids’ failures and setbacks,” Haimovitz says. “We need to really think about what’s visible to the other person, what message I’m sending in terms of my words and my deeds.”
In other words, if a child comes home with a D on a math test, how a parent responds will influence how the child perceives their own ability to learn math. Even a well-intentioned, comforting response of “It’s OK, you’re still a great writer” may send the message that it’s time to give up on math rather than learn from the problems they got wrong, Haimovitz explains.
“The more parents believed that failure is debilitating, the more likely their children were to see them as concerned with their performance outcomes and grades rather than their learning and improvement,” the study found.
So what can teachers do to help their students become success- rather than failure-oriented?
There are no easy answers and not all the research-based suggestions below will work with each kind of failure-orientation. The key is for teachers to know their students well and recognize when they are starting to engage in failure-based behavior.
- Emphasize effort over ability.Thanks to Carol Dweck’s research on mindsets, many teachers have started to give more importance to students’ efforts rather than their “innate” ability. This is particularly important for teachers of upper elementary students through university as research has shown that as children get older, they tend to value ability over effort. One way to encourage effort is to provide specific feedback to students that recognizes and praises effort. Studies have shown that students who receive this kind of feedback are not only more motivated to succeed, but also believe that they can succeed. However, be careful not to tell students to try harder if they failed, particularly if a lot of effort was expended to succeed. Otherwise, they may begin to doubt their abilities and eventually become failure-avoidant or accepting.
- Encourage students to practice self-compassion when they fail. Covington suggests that at the heart of the fear of failure is a push-pull between self-acceptance and being able to see ourselves as we really are. This is where self-compassion can help. Kristin Neff writes in her book Self-Compassion that in order for self-compassion to be effective, we have to first realize that, “Our true value lies in the core experience of being a conscious being who feels and perceives.” In other words, rather than making our self-worth contingent on categories such as academic success, appearance, or popularity, we must value ourselves solely for the fact that we are human beings and accept that failure is part of the human experience. When we do that, it is easier for us to extend compassion to ourselves when we fail. Rather than beating ourselves up for not being perfect in something like academics—as the Overstriver might do—we practice self-talk that is kind and compassionate. This makes it easier to look realistically at what caused the failure and then consider what can be done to improve next time. Research has found that people who practice self-compassion recover more quickly from failure and are more likely to try new things—mainly because they know they won’t face a negative barrage of self-talk if they fail.
- Children should be allowed to make mistakes. A study conducted at Queensland University of Technology by clinical psychologist Dr Judith Locke and associates demonstrates the harmful effects of so-called “over-parenting”. “Over-parenting”, in this case, is defined as a parent’s “misguided attempt to improve their child’s current and future personal and academic success.” In interviewing psychologists, guidance counsellors and teachers, the authors found that such over-parenting had the potential to ruin a child’s confidence and undermine an education in independence. Students need to suffer setbacks, says Dr. Locke, in order to learn important life skills such as responsibility, organization, manners, restraint, and foresight. Letting our kids struggle is a difficult gift to give – but it’s a vital one. In her best-selling book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, American clinical psychologist Dr. Wendy Mogel suggests that children insulated from unpleasant situations or challenges become less capable of dealing with adversity. As Dr Mogel puts it, “It is our job to prepare our children for the road, not to prepare the road for our children.”
Summary and Conclusions:
It is clear from a review of the research and experts’ perspectives that a few things stand out:
- First, we have created a rigid dichotomy in our society that views and reinforces the belief that success and failure are diametrical opposites, and that failure is the absence of success.
- Second, we have attributed moral and values weighting to success and failure—success is always good and failure is always bad. That has extended into viewing people in unrealistic terms—successful people are better, more desirable, etc, and those who have failed are the opposite.
- Fear of failure has become such a debilitating emotion for many people, that it prevents them from pursuing their dreams or ideas.
- Shame has also become a debilitating emotion for many people when they fail, believing that the failure means they are a failure.
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