Why Failure Is Part Of Learning

I was recently interviewed for an Irish Times article on how learning to fail gracefully, and putting failure in perspective, is a vital trait for any successful entrepreneur. Below is an abridged version of the article, which can be read in full here

“Failure is part of learning,” explains Billy O’Connor, professor of physiology at University of Limerick Graduate Entry Medical School and author of neuropsychological blog Inside-the-brain.com.Society holds up the idea of success as being the goal in everything. This leads certain people into a mindset where they think that success should be all or nothing when, actually, the real way to engage with work is to concentrate on the effort and let the reward take care of itself. People are too consumed by rewards. Therefore they are distracted from the task at hand. You have to immunise yourself from feeling swamped by failure and in order to do this you must train.

O’Connor is an advocate of bestselling positive psychology book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin EP Seligman.

In it Seligman argues that while optimism is essential in life, most people are more prone to pessimism. So you have to learn to be more optimistic. It doesn’t necessarily come naturally. “Naivety is a different thing and the two should not be confused,” stresses O’Connor.

Perceive reality
“According to Seligman’s hypothesis there are four things you must do in order to protect yourself from being swamped by failure. Firstly, you must perceive what’s actually happening.”

In other words, you must try to perceive reality accurately and all the external factors affecting your life and choices. “Secondly, you must have a compelling goal, something that drives you forward,” he says. “Thirdly you must try to think positively at all times and lastly, never give up.”

While these goals may sound obvious and not particularly insightful, learned optimism and thinking positively involves overcoming some very natural inclinations.

“Defeat cannot be seen as permanent or in any way a reflection on you as a person,” says O’Connor. “Most problems we have are temporary and external. But too often failure is taken personally. So you must develop these skills and learn to be optimistic.”

Many of us wish for it to be true that the most successful in business are major risk takers who sit on the 50th floor in their office smoking cigars and admiring their collection of cowboy hats. It’s rarely the case. “The most successful people in this world are the ones running on plan B,” says O’Connor. Good entrepreneurs are very careful. Sure they take gambles, but only of the calculated kind.


Think Feedback Not Failure

I came across an old newspaper cutting from the Irish Times recently – an article by NLP practitioner, Carmel Wynne on the theme of how we live up to our expectations of success or failure.

Your thoughts, feelings and actions run like habitual programmes in the brain.  Just as you can upgrade and change computer programs you can change your mental programmes.

Your thoughts have a structure that you can alter.  You can transform how you think. Doing so offers you life-changing possibilities because your mind is so powerful.

When you change your thinking about a situation you change your feelings.  It’s not the situation but how you think about it that makes it pleasant or unpleasant.

It’s amazing how your brain responds to what you believe is true.  What is considered overcrowding in a train is experienced as atmosphere in a nightclub.  If you hold the belief that too many people in a train make for an uncomfortable environment you are right.  If you think that lots of people crowded together in a nightclub make for a wonderful atmosphere your brain produces feelings of enjoyment in response to your thoughts.

Changing beliefs is not easy.  Yet one tiny change can have a huge impact on your life.  Think what would happen if you stopped using the word ‘Failure’.  It would bring about significant changes in how you think and feel.

Substitute the word ‘Feedback’ and you eliminate all the negative connotations that are linked with failure.  Feedback encourages constructive thinking and has a positive impact on creativity.

Failure is a concept that creates negativity.  It breeds pessimistic thinking.  The feelings of inadequacy and discouragement that accompany the belief that you are not measuring up discourage and de-motivate further efforts.

When you eliminate the concept of failure and replace it with the idea of getting feedback the whole focus shifts.  Feedback puts attention onto learning what works and doesn’t work.  This information allows the person to take risks and seek different solutions.

Feedback allows for flexibility.  When you recognise something is not working you take another approach.  You let go of ‘Ill-formed’ language when you discard the word ‘Failure’.  Just think of the impact of this tiny alteration.

The effect of replacing one word potentially changes your feelings and for those who are self-aware your internal experience.  What a powerful tool for personal growth and achievement.

I need hardly tell you that no two people respond to the same event in identical ways. Some people are naturally optimistic and others are pessimistic.  Psychologist Martin Seligman has discovered three major attitudes that distinguish the two.

Optimists view downturns in their lives as temporary blips in the graph.  Basically they see troubles and difficulties as delayed success.  They view misfortune as situational and specific.

The three Ps of pessimism are Permanence, Pervasiveness and Personalising.  Pessimists generalise, think they screw up everything and blame their own incompetence or ineffectiveness.

Helplessness, passivity and inaction influence the attitude of pessimists to setbacks.  Their belief that they screw up everything creates expectations of failure.

Realistic optimists maintain a positive attitude in the face of adversity.  Their ‘Can do’ attitude allows them use their skills to actively address problems.

Failure or feedback – it’s up to you!