Learning by Failure: How failure is a critical part of success

Why do we fall sir? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up. – Alfred Pennyworth, Batman Begins.


Almost any successful person will tell you that it does not come easily, that it takes courage, and that you will fail along the way. However, success does not come without risk. The more risks you take, the more you’ll fail… and the bigger the risks are, the bigger your failures will be – that is just probability. Perhaps it is human nature to always put our best foot forward, so as to avoid seeming weak or unreliable. As a result, we often run away from our failures, thereby forgoing any chance to use the experience to make us stronger and smarter. Then how do high achieving individuals deal with failure?

The Cycle of Failure (and eventual success):

Let us first take a step back and think about success and failure as processes, not results. I imagine it is most intuitive to look at any experience as a cycle:

Take a risk

Get feedback & identify adjustments to be made

Try again

So let’s break it down.

Step 1 is pretty easy. Just do it.

Step 2 is where the pain comes. It could be a minor issue, or an epic fail. How you handle the newfound information can dictate the outcome of your next try. I suspect the default for most people here is to internalize each failure (ex. think about it while not thinking about it), get a little drunk, maybe try again with an unenthusiastic mindset, fail again, and give up. This negative feedback cycle is easy to fall in to, and it sucks. Don’t get me wrong though, sometimes it feels good to just crawl into bed with your self-pity. And honestly, you deserve some time to regroup. BUT, if you’re going to try again, you might as well give it your all, right?

I strongly believe that embracing failure and learning from your mistakes will give you the power to turn any experience into a positive feedback cycle. A thorough and objective look at what happened can help you gather information and identify specific things to do differently next time. I want to emphasize first how important it is to be self-critical but not self-degrading. Everybody makes mistakes, and some things are out of your control. It is not the end of the world, so find a way to stay grounded. Also, never go into something thinking that you’re going to get it the first time… which leads me to step 3.

Assume step 3 is always required. If you think the first try will work, then you’re constantly setting yourself up for failure. Therefore, simply accepting that you’ll probably fail, while maintaining confidence that you will succeed (eventually), can do wonders for your mentality. Occasionally, a second chance may not seem feasible. It will happen though! It might not look exactly like the first one, so sit tight and be patient.

Getting to Know Yourself:

How then does one stay confident and enthusiastic in the face of adversity? I have yet to meet a person who actually likes to fail, but I do know people – myself included – who have developed ways to get back up quickly and efficiently. Tough skin is built over time, and hard work will result in callouses. Here are some tips that I often use for dealing with difficult situations.

First and foremost, it is important to know your strengths and to plan ahead. Honing in on skills you’re already good at will not only boost your confidence, but it will also help you identify opportunities to make changes that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. Being prepared will allow you to make conscious and calculated decisions that can greatly influence the trajectory you’re on, and thus allow you to better capitalize on the fruits of your labor.

Second, you really need to know how you learn. Some soul searching might be necessary, but it is definitely worth the investment. This knowledge will allow you to better probe any situation for feedback that is truly constructive, and parse out feedback that is solely disparaging. This is the difference between telling someone “I don’t fully understand how event A resulted in event B,” versus “I don’t get it.” While the former will get you detailed cause and effect information, the latter only emphasizes to others that you just don’t get it. In other words, know what you need and don’t be afraid to ask for it. Assume that people around you actually want to help, but don’t know how. So give them a hint! That being said, if you’re surrounded by people who enjoy seeing you fail (ex. haters), well… haters gonna hate. Ignore the noise and you do you.

Finally, you need to accept your weaknesses. While most people like to revel in their strengths, it is often difficult to acknowledge our shortcomings. We can’t pretend these don’t exist though, because this is not an out-of-sight/out-of-mind scenario (literally, it is in your mind…). Your weaknesses will affect your everyday life and every decision you make. However, keep in mind that a single weakness does not define who you are. It is what you do about it that defines your character. Proper identification of specific strategies to help fill the gap can mean the difference between stagnancy and rising to your full potential.

Making Psychology Work for You

Associative Learning

How it works: Plug in X, get out Y, therefore doing X results in Y. This is how dogs learn to do tricks for a treat.

Application: I have found this technique to be useful for subconsciously coercing others to help you get your goal. While this may seem slightly manipulative, it is a surefire way to make your own luck.

Example: You have an idea that can be good or bad and you want to share it with a superior (boss, manager, etc.). If the goal is to get your boss to psychologically pair your idea with a positive thing, then bringing it up in the bathroom while boss is doing #2 is probably not going to help. Try instead to bring up the idea over some coffee or pastries.

Failure: Maybe your boss thinks that talking while on the toilet makes you more connected? Or maybe your boss is allergic to coffee… either way, some trial and error will help you figure it out. There’s no way to know without trying, which frequently necessitates error.

Non-Associative Learning

How it works: Plug in X, get out Y, repeat. Eventually, doing X results in YYY (sensitization) OR doing X results in 0 (habituation). For example, coffee might taste bitter at first, but the more you consume it, the less bitter it will taste (habituation). Simultaneously, you might dislike coffee after the first time you drink it, but now you see Starbucks everywhere and start to want it again (sensitization).

Application: Being cognizant of non-associative learning is most useful in situations where you need to augment the speed or amplitude of a desirable response, or reduce the speed or amplitude of an undesirable response. In order to carry this out successfully, you need to find points at which you can actively engage to shift the balance in your favor.

Example: You think it’s time to get a promotion, so you work up enough courage to ask your boss. He scoffs at you. Take a deep breath, and remember the cycle of failure (and eventual success).

Failure: Believe it or not, you have actually succeeded – at priming your boss for your promotion goal. Ask for some feedback on concrete things you can do to improve your chances and follow through on the advice you get. Show that you took the advice to heart, strategically place some courteous reminders about the promotion, and eventually he/she will become sensitized to your good work. As a result, you might get the promotion you wanted, or at least a pat on the back and a “good job” (until next time…). Basically, don’t just talk the talk, but also walk the walk. Strut your stuff, but don’t run. Slow and steady wins the race.

Active Learning

How it works: The learning process is not one size fits all. Some people are visual (learn by observation), auditory (learn by explanation), verbal (learn by reading/writing), or physical learners (learn by doing). Most people are some combination of the four. Unfortunately, grade school (i.e. K-12 in the U.S.) does not teach us how to learn, but instead expects students to learn based on the easiest and most economical way a topic can be taught.

Application: Knowing how you learn best, and making others aware of it can greatly improve the efficiency of your knowledge intake and retention. If you’re not sure what type of learner you are, you can either take one of the hundreds of tests on the internet to help you figure it out. Alternatively, you can look into your past.

Example: In all the teachers you’ve had in your life and all the lessons you’ve learned, which ones stuck particularly well with you? What made that learning environment special? What resources did it have that really helped? Whatever it is that worked, make it known to those around you. This way, the people who really want to see you succeed can better help you reach your goals.

Failure: As far as I can see, the only way to fail at active learning is to forget, which is just as natural as to remember. If you’ve forgotten, just learn it again. Really, it’s no big deal. You’ll pick it up faster the second, third, and so on time around. The key is to also learn something about yourself with every repetition, so you can better optimize the next try.

Morals of the Story:

If life doesn’t hand you lemons, either go ask for it or go forage through the forest.

Sometimes you’ll get juice in your eye. It happens. Wear some goggles or learn to be more careful.

If you spill and need more lemons, then plant a seed, nurture it, and patiently wait for the picking.

The lemonade you make from the tree you grew will be the most satisfying drink ever.

(Originally published on PRYMD.com.)

Jessica ChenComment