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Failing better

Our society celebrates failure as a teachable moment. This notion has been repeated by many well-known figures, from Albert Einstein to Winston Churchill. But recent studies, one aptly titled Not Learning From Failure—the Greatest Failure of All, find that failure teaches us less than we think. In fact, failure can undermine learning.

We learn from others’ successes, from others' failures, and from our own successes. But we don’t learn as much from our own failures. Here’s why: One key reason is that failure is ego threatening – it makes us feel bad about ourselves. As a result, we choose to tune out and not pay attention. But paying attention is a prerequisite to learning. And so, we fail to learn from our failures.

How can we learn from our failures?

To learn from failure, you need to find ways to make yourself feel less threatened by it. A counterproductive way to do this might be to blame someone else for your failure or deny it happened in the first place. Here are some good ways to go about it:

  • Give it time. Look at failure when you are in a mindset to take it in. That rejection letter will still sit there a week later.

  • Psychological distancing. Think about your own experiences in the third person to gain a little bit of distance. It can be as simple as speaking to yourself in the third person.

  • Adopt a growth mindset. Teach yourself to welcome failures as opportunities to learn and grow, rather than treat them as diagnostic of you and your potential. Here's how ⬇

"Not yet" VS. "No" - Growth mindset

How can we help others learn from their failures?

If you are a manager and you are in a situation where you have to deliver negative feedback, you have to let someone know that they have made a mistake, is there some particularly good way that you can do that? Make the failure feel less personal, so it is perceived as less threatening. Make it more about information than blame. Try to sugarcoat it to soften the blow and protect their ego, giving them a better chance to pay attention and learn. Just as you would with kids – adults are not much different.

One exception You may wonder – why do some top managers or coaches yell at their players at the top of their voice instead of using sugarcoating, and yet they are considered successful and good motivators? The exception is in the case of experts. If you manage a team of professional basketball players, some intensity in pointing out their mistakes during a game is not harmful. This is because, when we are already really good at something (when we have a much higher ratio of successes to failures) then our ego does not get so easily bruised in case of a bad play. We retain the ability to tune in the details of our failure, pay attention and are able to learn from it and get better.


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