Failure: a state of inability to perform a normal function; lack of success; a failing in business; a falling short. (Webster's Dictionary tells us.)
My, how our collective perception of failure has evolved over the last decade! This seismic shift in perception became a part of my consciousness about six years ago, when I attended a panel on the subject. I'd heard about failure, at least in my sphere of work, as a chance to find meaning where there once was none and as a second chance to success. Failure has long been regarded as a learn-the-hard-way teacher, but it is now increasingly seen as invaluable. It's arguably a modern badge of honor. It actually seems…trendy.
I look at failure much more inquisitively now. It's almost impossible not to dwell on their failures just the same, and I've failed enough times now to know it's a feedback loop for each one of us, a scenario to learn from. Apart from the immediate disappointment failure drops on us, it is actually an opportunity to learn. Defining concepts like failure might seem abstract at first, and yet our individual notion of it really shapes our lives.
Following are three ways to look at failure at varying degrees of positivity. I listen to clients to see if they are falling within these categories of failure or if we can get them there. See if any naturally apply to you or feel comfortable.
1. When can I try again?! (Positively viewed individual failure)
If you can feel humility rather quickly following a failure, then you can segue into the helpful, quizzical phase. Failure can feel debilitating, but if we're lucky enough to have this response—or to get there with some assistance—we can evaluate how to try again and this time succeed.
2. What actually happened? (Systems failure, a call to action)
Failing systems within our own country, at work, in relationships, often spur us into action. We begin asking questions ("Well, what IS right?" "How do we learn from this?" "What can I do to help?”) Many of us are definitely experiencing this in unison right now.
3. I failed miserably. I'm broken, but I'm willing to learn from this. (Negative to neutral individual perspective, willingness to evaluate)
Truthfully, the majority of people I've ever spoken to about failure in depth reached this state first. Here, assessing what transpired might be a bit of an uphill climb, and there may be days they slide down the mountain a little bit. They're not necessarily going to commit to trying again, but there is an openness to look at what transpired, not shutdown.
The science behind failure and learning
Scientists have long understood that the brain primarily has two ways of learning. One we call avoidance learning, which is the brain reacting to negative experiences by not repeating the action again. The second is reward-based learning, a positive experience the brain would like to repeat again. An MRI study in 2015 by the University of Southern California found that having the opportunity to learn from failure can turn it into a positive experience—a rewards-based experience, if you will—if the brain is given a chance to assimilate from its mistakes.
This year, Columbia University studied New York City high school students who were taught "about the failures and personal struggles of famous scientists." Studying these failures caused the students to score significantly higher than their peers on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) tests.
Seek out mentors, heroes, people you don't even know who share their failures and resulting knowledge from them. This is just as important as studying successes. Find a coach willing to talk with you about your experiences of defeats. Failure is often not the result of bad decision making. It's often a result of trial-and-error decision making or of poor timing (such as a downturn in an industry or meeting someone at an inopportune time). It's oftentimes not taking the road you knew was bad for you; it's just not having enough information to know that in the first place. You can't fail if you never tried.