The Science of Failure: Why Highly Successful People Crave Mistakes

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“I’m delighted to admit that I’ve failed at more challenges than anyone I know.” — Scott Adams

A friend told me recently about a colleague who is entirely open to feedback. When she’s told that she did something wrong, my friend said, she just starts over. She doesn’t take feedback personally, and she doesn’t feel upset about getting anything wrong.

When I heard that story, I thought to myself, “I wish I took feedback that well.” I can’t imagine anything better than an attitude like that, especially when I’m trying to learn new things.

I’m not at that point yet, but I know a lot of successful people are. I love to learn from the advice of others, so I thought I’d take a look at what some successful people say about failure and why they seek it out.

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 before exploring a topic, I think. I looked into some of the research on success and failure, and how we react to them to see what I could learn. These are three of the most interesting points I discovered (they are all, of course, subconscious – so we do them all the time without realizing):

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 show 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.”

What successful people say about failure

Luckily there are successful people around who are willing to publicly share their failures and why they consistently seek to make more mistakes.

kathrynKathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong

“As with dying, we recognize erring as something that happens to everyone, without feeling that it is either plausible or desirable that it will happen to us.” —Kathryn Schulz

Kathryn Schulz is a great person to start with. She’s written a whole book about being wrong, and advocates for us all to realize how prone we are to making mistakes and learn how to learn from them:

“Because we don’t experience, remember, track, or retain mistakes as a feature of our inner landscape, wrongness always seems to come at us from left field.”



sara-blakelySara Blakely, founder of Spanx

In this CNBC interview, Sara Blakely explains how a history of being comfortable with failure led her to build a business from scratch even though she had no experience.

“My dad growing up encouraged me and my brother to fail… It’s really allowed me to be much freer in trying things and spreading my wings in life.”

In the video, Sara shares the story of how her dad would ask her each day, “What have you failed at today?” encouraging her to try new things and not be afraid of failure.






Scott-AdamsScott Adams, creator of Dilbert

Scott Adams has an amazingly positive view of failure. In a Wall Street Journal article, he shared some of his past failures and how much he learned from each one.

“If I find a cow turd on my front steps, I’m not satisfied knowing that I’ll be mentally prepared to find some future cow turd. I want to shovel that turd onto my garden and hope the cow returns every week so I never have to buy fertilizer again. Failure is a resource that can be managed.”

Scott’s view of failure is that we should not only not shy away from it, but by seeking it out we’ll be more likely to find success:

“The universe has plenty of luck to go around; you just need to keep your hand raised until it’s your turn. It helps to see failure as a road and not a wall.”

Learning from your mistakes

I can’t tell you to think different about failure. You can’t even tell yourself that, really. Thinking differently about something takes time and effort, and often requires compounding evidence.

One thing I can suggest is working on that compounding evidence to help convince yourself that failure isn’t so bad after all. Here are two ways to get started:

1. 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.

2. Review past mistakes

At some point, sit down and look over the record you’ve been keeping of the mistakes you’ve made. Take note of the patterns you can see and what you think you could do to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Even before you’ve had time to start a journal of mistakes you can learn from, I bet you can think of a bunch you’ve made in the past (I know I can). Try looking at past failures or mistakes and working out what you learned from them. How did those failures help you get to where you are now? How did those mistakes help you learn?

Faced with a true list of your past mistakes and how they’ve helped you, rather than hindered your progress, you may find your opinion of failure changing slowly.

3. 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.”

Leo’s idea is to conduct experiments to help us make the best choices we can. For instance, he suggests trying to sell cupcakes to friends and family to test whether setting up a cupcake business is right for you. Or taking a ballet class to test whether ballet is something you’d enjoy learning.

It’s all about testing, rather than “making decisions.” Sounds less scary, right?

“When you’re just conducting experiments, there’s no failure. Any result is learning. If there’s no failure, you don’t have to worry.”

P.S. If you liked this post, you might also like 10 Years of Silence: How Long it Took Mozart, Picasso and Kobe Bryant to be Successful and The First Version of Google, Facebook, YouTube and More (and What They Can Teach us About Starting Small).

Image credits: eLKayPics, International Reporting Project, Forbes, Wall Street Journal

  • http://about.me/muruganpandian Murugan Pandian

    It took me a long time, but I am finally learning to view mistakes as an opportunity to improve in an area. It’s like a full court basketball game; there is no time to dwell on a mistake, because you need to get to the other end of the floor for the next play.

    • Belle

      Great analogy, I love that.

  • http://www.seannisil.com/ Sean Nisil

    Failure is proof you’re playing the game. And scars make for great stories.

    • Belle

      Can’t argue with that, Sean!

  • Stephan De Jonghe

    Making a mistake becomes an issue when you try to hide it or cover it up. A mistake defeats you when you refuse to learn from it. Failure is not falling down but refusing to get back up. In order to learn from a mistake you need to focus on the correct way to do it otherwise you are doomed to repeat the mistake. Employers that sack staff for making mistakes have just wasted money in their training and development.

  • Link

    “Failure makes us less generous” I’m not sure if this is positive truth. So the more failures we have, the more we keep for ourselves, the less we share. It seems true and it’s a painful truth

  • Abhishek Pariyar

    Amazing article Beth. Keeping track of failure to notice a pattern, now that’s a cool scientific way of dealing with the subject.

  • http://thienanvietnam.com/ thienanvietnam
  • CrankyFranky

    in my previous workplace I made a joke of accusing people in the lunchroom – ‘it’s your fault!’ – this became a standard banter to the point that the boss started proudly announcing she had made a mistake – or someone else had stuffed up – result – a lot more sharing of information enabling quick fixes to shared problems – a great work environment

    except I’ve recently been transferred to a new location famous for toxic workers who regularly sued their bosses so people started talking to me in whispers – slowly I’m building trust – I’m hopeful …

  • brbordallo

    Hi Belle, Thanks for create this content!
    I just started to keep track of my past mistakes in my blog, relating what I think I did bad. It’s a good exercise because remembering them avoid you to make them another time.

  • Steiner on Failure

    Dear Beth have been following your work and have complimented you on it frequently.

    There’s quite a lot more to failure than you’ve touched on here.
    Would you be open to a guest blog post on the subject?

    regards.
    @Stnr_on_failure

  • http://www.modernmsg.com/ Mike

    “View decisions as experiments” –> Great quote

  • Allen Williams Jr

    War wounds are respected more!

  • Noelle Poulson

    I’ve struggled with fear of failure lately and it’s really bothered me because I always used to see it as a stepping stone before. It’s been a frustrating road block to suddenly start failing at failure. But I spend a lot of time with kids and just this week I was watching all the mistakes they make and thinking about how we never look at children as if their mistakes are failures, we recognise they are constantly learning an amazing amount and failing is how they do that. This article put those feelings in grown up terms. Thanks for sharing :)

  • Jennifer Adams

    It seems as though so many people are afraid of failing that they never succeed. You just have to keep on pushin’ on. The only failures there are, are the ones in which we don’t try.

  • Felix Brown

    Failure is not the end of everything it is only the beginning. Because, I believe that failing is not yet the end of the world, indeed it’s just a beginning of one’s success.

  • MrDax

    There is always this notion that others got it first time and somehow they don’t make mistakes. I know how some people see me and regard me as a successful person but only I know some of my failures