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Learning From Failure

LearnAlyssa Davis
Photo by BBH Singapore on Unsplash

Photo by BBH Singapore on Unsplash

"For my first show at 'SNL', I wrote a Bill Clinton sketch, and during our read-through, it wasn't getting any laughs. This weight of embarrassment came over me, and I felt like I was sweating from my spine out. But I realized, 'Okay, that happened, and I did not die.' You've got to experience failure to understand that you can survive it.” – Tina Fey

Don’t Call It A Comeback

Let’s start with the obvious: failure is inevitable. Every person you’ve ever looked up to has, at one point or another, had a massive defeat of some kind. However hindsight is 20/20 and so we, to some degree, romanticize that failure. I vividly remember sitting in my college dorm room imagining my life out in sunny California as a starving artist whose been cut from a hundred different auditions before finally getting the “You got the job!” call, and I remember thinking to myself that I’d write down every audition I got a "no” from until I got to triple digits and eat packaged ramen for dinner and sleep on a mattress on the floor and that eventually, if I failed enough, I would make it. This appealed to me. Why? Because I’d had this image of a starving artist etched in my mind since I began my dance career – the rags to riches story as you will. And so what happened? I went out to California. I put my mattress on the floor. I worked a dead-end job. I got a few “no”s. And I was swimming in misery. The way I had always pictured “the struggle” was actually a struggle. It was difficult. I was under the impression that to succeed, I had to first fail miserably, but I was failing at the wrong things. I was pushing for something I didn’t really want because I thought that failing would bring me success.

We paint failure as a mark of accomplishment – a feat to aspire to. After all, if you’re not failing, you’re not trying. And pop culture backs this ideology up. If you fail enough times, eventually you will succeed. Legally Blonde. Rocky. La La Land. The Pursuit of Happyness. Our culture has reinforced this idea that if you continually lose, you’ll eventually win. Everyone loves an underdog. And the best part is that out of those four movies, half of them are true stories. So we’ve created this idea that these stories, which are true, are always fail, fail, fail, eventually hit success and then live happily ever after. We’re not seeing the deleted scenes, the parts of the story that didn’t quite make it, the moments after the credits roll. And when we’re failing, those movies don’t inspire us because we can’t see through to the other side. I don’t know many people that get fired from their day job, come home, reach for the remote, and turn on Remember the Titans.

Thinking in terms of “failing forward” implies that to achieve success, you must first fail. However, if you can avoid failure entirely, why even go that route? Look at past mistakes and learn from them – in their entirety. We hate to give you the stats but according to recent studies, “entrepreneurs fail at almost the same rate with their second business as their first: around 20%. So, depending on your information source, that’s reasonably on par with the upper range of the success rate for first startups.” What does all this suggest? That failure is not only not necessary for success, but that failing first may not teach us anything at all.

Learning from failure is about more than just trying a different approach in as many ways as possible and hoping for the best. It’s about consistent work towards a focused end goal, and sometimes that end goal will change (and that change may also make you feel like you’ve failed – embrace it). Opt for success when possible. If you are about to do something high-risk, consider all of the possibilities. Don’t jump with the safety net that “everyone fails” and “failure is a stepping stone”. Though these statements have some validity, they aren’t a good enough reason to make risky moves without doing your research. Yes, failure will happen, but don’t fail your way to success when you can set yourself up for success from the get-go.

Setting yourself up for success not only means doing your research, it means envisioning your success before it happens. Failure distorts reality. One study had participants estimate how far and high a goalpost was in an unmarked field. Participants then had to kick a football over the goalpost. They found that “people who failed estimated the goalpost as being further away and higher than those who had succeeded.” So if you are already thinking you’ll fail, odds are you will.

If you’re past the point of avoiding failure entirely, ask yourself why you’re feeling the way you do about your failure. Are you feeling shameful because you’re disappointing a friend or family member? Are you feeling incompetent or like you’re lacking in ability? Failure is so central to our identity. It hits us where it hurts – our egos. Our brains perceive failure as a social threat. We fear exclusion and our brain interprets that and translates it into physical pain. The anterior-cingulate cortex (ACC) activates when we are socially distressed (i.e. when we feel failure) and triggers the pain center when we feel rejected. It’s why sometimes we will have a physical response to failure – whether that be a tightening of the chest or an upset stomach. Once you can understand this process, you can take it at face value and see it for what it is – a reaction. It’s not a state of being.

We can sit in our pain and understand that though it hurts (sometimes physically) right now, it won’t be this way forever and this too shall pass. Studies show that when you sit in your pain, you are more likely to learn from your mistakes the next go-round. Simply thinking about what could have gone better does not produce the same results. When you spend some time feeling that loss, rejection, and frustration, your brain and body learn. Instead of failing and immediately opting to self-protect, think about that awful feeling in the pit of your stomach and sit with it for a bit. Doing so will help ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself.

So if you’re in the thick of it, know this – everyone has failed. No one has enjoyed the failure while they’re in it. It’s not endearing and most likely won’t end in a smashing success come tomorrow. Accept it at face value. Pick yourself up. Rebuild. Set yourself up for a win. And be better next time.