Have you ever felt the crippling fear of making the wrong choices? Or stayed up all night fearing the worst regarding a presentation you had the next day, or an important meeting?
If so, do not worry, you are not alone. The fear of failure can affect even the most confident people, and have us paralysed with dread in the worst of cases. But, guess what? According to science, failure could indeed, when not downright positive, at least be necessary for us to truly succeed. In fact, a failure-free road to success may not exist.
To prove our point, we have spoken with two experts in the art of failing.
The emotions behind failure
Failing does not feel good — most human beings will agree on that. Whether you are a highly competitive athlete dreaming of the gold medal or an ambitious marketing guru.
But the pain we feel when we fail could actually be the start of a more successful story: “What we know from research is that failure can trigger both cognitive and emotional reactions. Cognitive reactions to failure tend to lead to rationalisation and justification and do not trigger learning. Emotional reactions, on the other hand, do lead to learning and improved subsequent behaviours,” says Ben Voyer, a renowned behavioral scientist and professor in the entrepreneurship department at ESCP Business School.
The sadness, the pain, the frustration that we feel when we fail come from different places, starting with our experiences as children. “Aversion to failure is both evolutionary and learned as we grow up. From an evolutionary point of view, the motivation to do well and avoid failure can provide a competitive advantage. Aversion to failure is also inculcated through socialisation practices. Children are taught to avoid failing, starting with falling when they are toddlers. They are then being regularly tested at school, where failing is frowned upon. Societies understandably celebrate success but often fail to consider that success can require failure. This reinforces the fear of failing.”
Understanding why one has failed is perhaps more desirable from a learning point of view than succeeding without knowing why.Christoph Seckler
Failure: a prerequisite for success?
But does a bump-free, straightforward road to success really exist? For our experts, failure is needed for us to learn lessons and evolve in the right direction.
As Ben Voyer puts it: “Failing is designed to help us learn, especially when we are provided with external feedback on why we failed. As failing carries a certain weight – financial, symbolic – most people will want to learn from their mistakes to avoid failing several times at the same task. Overcoming failure is related to the psychological traits of perseverance and resilience, which are especially important for entrepreneurs. It may sound paradoxical but understanding why one has failed is perhaps more desirable from a learning point of view than succeeding without knowing why.”
And, indeed, failure has allowed scientists and entrepreneurs to investigate different roads, learn better, and even generate solutions for the world to benefit from.
Something which Christoph Seckler, professor of entrepreneurship at ESCP’s Berlin campus, sees supported in these real-world cases: “There are several examples [of famous failures that turned out to be pathways to greater success]. For example, the invention of Sticky notes: in 1968, the 3M’s brand scientist Spencer Silver, was working to create a strong adhesive. Instead, he accidentally created a ‘low-tack’, reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive. We owe the development of the very commonly used sticky notes to this accident.”
And science too can benefit from mistakes, big or small: “And we have also seen mistakes turn into greater success recently, with the AstraZeneca vaccine. During the first tests there was a ‘dose error‘. While most of the volunteers in the trial got the correct dose for both of their two shots, some didn’t. Interestingly it turned out that the volunteers who received the wrong dose had better vaccination results.”
A last famous example is the discovery of penicillin for which Sir Alexander Fleming received the Nobel Prize in Medicine: “Fleming was working on the influenza virus at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. He was quite a careless scientist and when he returned from a two-week vacation, he discovered that mold had grown on an accidentally contaminated staphylococcus culture plate. His examination of the mold made him realize that the culture prevented the growth of staphylococci. This is how penicillin was discovered.” Not to advocate for being careless, but accidents can sometimes result in strokes of genius or unblock something unexpected.
Societies understandably celebrate success, but often fail to consider that success can require failure.Ben Voyer
How to make the most out of your mistakes
Everyone makes mistakes at some point in their lives, whether professionally or in other aspects of life. What truly matters is how we respond to the fall we take.
And to Christoph Seckler, who has studied error management and learning from failure, humility is a key factor in how we handle things not going the way we wanted.
“Humility helps us to bounce back better from failure. In our research, we found that a person’s humility is crucial for explaining who adopts an error management mindset and, thus, who bounces back better from failure by learning from it. In psychological research, humility is defined as the willingness to view oneself accurately, a displayed appreciation of others’ strengths and contributions, and teachability. Humble people are willing to see themselves accurately and thus welcome accurate information about themselves. They are naturally tuned to take a more proactive and positive approach towards errors.”
Are you more of the bragging type? You might consider being humbler if you want to implement a more efficient approach regarding mistakes.
“I believe humility deserves a better connotation in our daily language. Often humility is related to being insecure, lacking confidence, or not having a sense of worth. Based on our study, we believe that humility may deserve a more positive connotation because humility is essential for people who work in professional contexts that depend on good error management, such as nurses, medical doctors, auditors, firefighters, and entrepreneurs.”
Humble people are willing to see themselves accurately and thus welcome accurate information about themselves. They are naturally tuned to take a more proactive and positive approach towards errors.Christoph Seckler
What kind of work culture for better resilience?
It’s not all about the individual, though. Companies can also build a work culture that will allow for failure, resilience, and progression. According to Christoph Seckler:
“A positive error management mindset can be actively trained in people and things can be done to improve the work culture towards an error management culture. First, create a more positive attitude towards errors. Explain that errors are a natural part of human action and that errors hold important information on how to improve for the future. Second, establish cultural norms which favour error management behaviours of communicating errors and learning from errors. Third, make it easy for people to communicate and learn from errors. Foster an open work culture in which nobody is punished for bringing up an error or for speaking up.”
And this will have very tangible, positive consequences on your company’s success: “Research findings suggest that about 20% of a firm’s profitability is determined by the error management culture. Also, firms with an error management culture have been found to be more innovative, resilient, and agile.”
Research findings suggest that about 20% of a firm’s profitability is determined by the error management culture.Christoph Seckler
Managing failure inside of a firm can also be done through a technique called “gamification”. Ben Voyer has studied gamification as a means to “make people more likely to embrace a behaviour they may be reluctant to adopt – e.g exercising – by turning it into a fun challenge.”
Do you remember playing video games as a kid and not quitting until you passed the next level? Gamification extends that chase to other parts of our lives and could be used as a tool for trial and error management.
“When we play a game, we often start by failing, but our motivation to get rewarded makes us want to overcome failure. Gamification can create positive reinforcement, that is, reward us for good behaviours.”
Are you ready to play, fail and start again? Game on.
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