How we think about and respond to failure may determine not only how well we cope when things go wrong but also the chances of our pushing on to achieve success.
It’s helpful, then, to question our preconceptions and identify our mindset on this most pervasive life experience. We all fail, from the toddler learning to walk and falling down, to the entrepreneur filing for bankruptcy. Do we learn from our mistakes, or do we keep repeating them? Does the fear of failure limit us, or does it enable us?
In their contribution to David Hillson’s The Failure Files, Robert Morrall and Kirsty Patterson argue that, in our modern society, failure is taboo and that although many publications and programs highlight the keys to success, there is little on how to cope with failure. Talking about failure is akin to washing your dirty laundry in public—best out of sight and out of mind. Being labeled a failure by our peers or by the media is a damning indictment, something to be avoided at all costs.
Paradoxically, trying to avoid failure is more likely to ensure it. Innovation, creativity, resourcefulness and determination are all sidelined if we choose to play it safe. Morrall and Patterson offer another perspective: “Failure offers both the individual and, indeed, society the opportunity to ‘draw a line in the sand’, to learn from the mistakes made and to open new doors for the future. Failure can be a positive turning point in an individual’s life. It should be viewed not as something that holds the individual back but as an opportunity to follow a new path in life.”
Yes, under certain circumstances failure can have catastrophic results, such as in medical care or aviation, so it is not to be viewed lightly. Lessons must be learned and changes made. But this is all the more likely when failure is considered a helpful tool, something to be embraced, analyzed and used as a spur to achieving success. This outlook is essential if we hope to overcome and move forward as individuals and as a society.
A Whirlwind of Failures
Let’s consider the example of someone who has a positive attitude toward failing and the benefit derived from that mindset. Sir James Dyson is an iconic British inventor and industrial designer. Founder of Dyson Ltd., his most famous invention to date is the bagless vacuum cleaner based on cyclonic vacuum technology. His company has since gone on to produce a range of other innovative products including hand dryers, hair dryers, fans and task lighting.
The Dyson website says: “In 1978, James Dyson became frustrated with his vacuum cleaner’s diminishing performance. Taking it apart, he discovered that its bag was clogging with dust, causing suction to drop. He’d recently built an industrial cyclone tower for his factory that separated paint particles from the air using centrifugal force. But could the same principle work in a vacuum cleaner?”
Columnist Matthew Syed of The Times of London interviewed Dyson for his 2015 book Black Box Thinking. In it he refers to the failure of vacuum-cleaner technology as an opportunity to reimagine vacuuming. He told Syed: “It always starts with a problem. I hated vacuum cleaners for twenty years. . . . If they had worked perfectly, I would have had no motivation to come up with a new solution. . . . Failures feed the imagination. You cannot have one without the other.”
Of course, producing a workable and saleable product was not straightforward. Dyson developed numerous iterations before he came up with a product that worked as he wanted. Like Thomas Edison and the well-known story of his many attempts at a workable incandescent light bulb, Dyson produced 5,127 prototypes before he was satisfied with the result. Looked at another way, he had to endure a lot of failure before achieving success.
Failure may be inevitable in life, but as long as we keep trying, it is only part of the process, not the endpoint. We can stay with broken technology and methodology and remain in a rut of our own devising, or we can consider failure a positive force for change. We can reimagine how we do things—from high-tech gadgets to the way we live our lives and structure our societies. Succeeding is not about avoiding failure but about learning from our mistakes and moving forward.
Syed argues that attaining success is, counterintuitively, facilitated by how well we cope and deal with failure. Do we see failure as a threat or an opportunity? British author and philosopher Bryan Magee puts it this way: “No one can possibly give us more service than by showing us what is wrong with what we think or do. . . . The man who welcomes and acts on criticism will prize it almost above friendship: the man who fights it out of concern to maintain his position is clinging to non-growth.”
“Critical comment from others, far from being resented, is an invaluable aid to be insisted on and welcomed.”
So what does it take to develop this mindset? Remaining teachable is key, which in turn requires humility. In his book Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes Into Stepping Stones for Success, leadership expert John Maxwell advocates remaining open to learning from mistakes. He advises that this “can help you turn adversity into advantage.” A teachable attitude helps us to learn all we possibly can from what has gone wrong. It’s similar to the practice of pressing and repressing olives: there is more to be gleaned than just the initial stream of oil. Some of the lessons to be learned are harder to come by and need us to focus, in a systematic way, on the what, why and when of a negative outcome. Remaining teachable helps us to fully engage in the learning process and squeeze every last drop of benefit from a situation that we might naturally want to run from and put behind us as soon as possible. Staying with it and giving our full attention to an error isn’t the same as dwelling on the mistake and rehearsing our shortcomings until we become paralyzed into inaction. Rather, it helps us move on and put the failure behind us in a positive way. It also lessens the likelihood that we’ll make the same mistake again.
To take advantage of our failings and learn from them, we do need to overcome the fear of failure. This can be difficult when the news media trumpet failures of every description and often seek someone to publicly blame. For example, when a high-profile public-works project goes well over budget and isn’t completed on time, it’s considered newsworthy. On the other hand, stories about projects completed on schedule and within budget don’t seem to generate as much interest. After all, good news is no news. With this pervasive culture it can be all too easy to react negatively to failure. Does the fear of failure drive us to apportion blame when things go wrong, look for a scapegoat and seek to cover up or airbrush our mistakes? Or do we take ownership of our shortcomings and try to turn things around?
Fear of failure can lead to paralysis. This is especially the case if we have experienced failure and negative consequences previously. Maxwell describes the Fear Cycle, where fear of failure leads to inaction, which in turn results in a lack of experience and competence, which further drives fear of failure.
Morrall and Patterson discuss psychologist Martin Seligman’s work on learned helplessness, where repeated negative exposure to failure leads to pessimism. Typically people respond by giving up, unable to see any way forward, dismissing other options and believing they have no control over what’s happening. This has implications at a societal level: how we bring up our children and educate them, how we run offenders institutes, the business culture we engender, etc. At the individual level, breaking this cycle demands action; there is no easy way around it. It requires resilience in the face of inevitable setbacks. We can think of this as the ability to pick oneself up, dust oneself off and start again.
Maxwell contends that “it doesn’t matter what has stopped you or how long you have been inactive. The only way to break the cycle is to face your fear and take action, even though it may seem small or insignificant.”
Of course, “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” may be beyond what some of us can manage, in which case we may need counseling and external support to help kick-start a positive cycle, where we face failure and deal with it constructively.
All of this assumes that our struggle is with facing up to and overcoming acknowledged failures. But what if we have yet to admit that we have failed? The human mind is adept at fooling itself into believing all is well. As Syed asks, “how can one learn from failure if one has convinced oneself—through the endlessly subtle means of self-justification, narrative manipulation and . . . dissonance-reduction—that a failure didn’t actually occur?”
“Lying to oneself destroys the very possibility of learning.”
Do we find ourselves saying things like “It was unavoidable,” “It was a one-off,” “I had no choice,” “Anyone would have done the same”? If so, our mind may be stuck in a closed loop where learning from what went wrong is impossible. We’ve probably heard experts explain away why their predictions for the economy, an election result, or the outcome of a sports match didn’t come true, self-justifying through statistics and the selective use of facts. How often do we hear a politician say, “I got that wrong, but this is what I learned from it, and here’s what I’m going to do about it”? Instead they usually put time and effort into spinning a positive backstory and outcome, or laying the blame at someone else’s door.
Social psychologist Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance (1957) also comes into play: when our theories, belief systems and behaviors are challenged by evidence, we try to maintain cognitive consistency. For example, when we find out that eating too much processed food may reduce our life expectancy, does it prompt us to change our lifestyle? Or do we react instead by saying, “Life is too short to worry about it,” or “I have to go sometime, so I might as well enjoy life.” If we do the latter, dissonance has been reduced by mental sleight of hand, and the opportunity to learn and change is lost.
Linked to this is confirmation bias, whereby we try to back up what we hold dear. For example, if we believe bad things come in threes, and two bad things have already happened, we will often look for a third in order to validate the belief, even undergoing mental contortions to make it so and overlooking the times when it clearly doesn’t hold true. The tendency is easy to spot in others; we need to be aware of it in ourselves.
Overcoming mind games, facing our failures and seeing them as learning opportunities are all positive steps, but ultimately they’ll be of little use if the process doesn’t produce a change in behavior. Will it take a heart attack before we change our diet or take up exercise? Rarely do such experiences come out of the blue; the warning signs, the failures, were there to be seen—golden opportunities to prompt us to change. All too often though, the tendency is to find out more and more about our problems but do little to solve them. It’s one reason why diet and exercise magazines, books and websites are so popular, especially at the turn of each year. But how many of us use the information they contain for more than a few weeks, persevering until failure turns to success?
“Learning is defined as a change in behavior. You haven’t learned a thing until you can take action and use it.”
So as individuals, where do our failings lie? Can we look at our lives and see a pattern—maybe of failed relationships, unfulfilled life goals, or opportunities missed, combined with a feeling of helplessness and being trapped in a negative loop?
On a broader scale, have our institutions, laws and methods of governance produced lasting peace, universal health care, sufficient clean water and nourishing food for all people, an end to the sexual abuse and exploitation of children, to name but a few of our collective failings? We have so much knowledge readily at our fingertips, but have we used it to promote change that leads to positive outcomes, or do we continue to plough the same old furrow with the same results?
Several thousand years of recorded history tell a consistent story of humanity’s failings. Yet we have at our disposal a source of information that challenges us to see things differently, to reimagine how we live as individuals and as a society, and to use this as a catalyst to turn failure into success. The Bible offers timeless advice for all, which, if heeded, will result in a change of heart. David, one of the kings of Israel, declared, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him!” (Psalm 34:8).
Are we willing to put that theory to the test, or will we refuse, because of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias, to take a fresh look at how and why we have failed? Will we continue to follow our own way of doing things? David’s son, King Solomon, had something to say about that: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25).
The warning signs are there, if only we would recognize them. The apostle Paul composed a list of traits that would characterize a future time, and it sounds eerily familiar: “Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:1–4, English Standard Version).
Will we heed these signs of the times, confront our failings and take steps to change? Paul went on to identify an invaluable source of help: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (verse 16).
The words of Bryan Magee bear repeating: “No one can possibly give us more service than by showing us what is wrong with what we think or do. . . .”
Are we willing to think outside the box and consider that our Creator is trying to tell us that very thing?