Learning from failure

If you aren’t making mistakes, then you are doing everything you can to avoid them, which is an even bigger mistake.

By Andrea Robinson, PhD

As all scientists know, we fail all the time. However, failure seems like a dirty little secret that no one ever talks about. Why do we only hear about the successes? When failure is mentioned, it’s only referred to in the past tense, often used as a good story to reference a discovery, only mentioned as a success in disguise. Failure doesn’t have to be something to shy away from or be ashamed of. 

Here’s why we should embrace our failures and mistakes:

Failure teaches us to take responsibility 

It’s easy to take credit for our successes and attribute them to internal factors, like how much effort we put in, past experiences and intelligence. On the other hand, it’s hard to take responsibility for our failures. Research has shown that we are more likely to blame failure on external factors like luck or the difficulty of the task (Kuiper, 1978). Taking responsibility for a failure may not always be easy but the act of doing so points out what we can do differently next time. If you were the reason you failed, accept responsibility. But don’t beat yourself up about it — just learn from it and move on.

Failure is a great way to learn

We should approach failure like the aviation industry. When something goes wrong in the air or on the runway, the aviation industry uses the opportunity to learn. Black boxes are opened, data are analyzed, and procedures are modified so the same mistakes aren’t repeated. Importantly, this has had an astonishing impact on airline safety (Oster et al., 2013). By failing, you learn why the things you were ignoring were actually important. 

Failure builds an immunity to fear

A fear of failure (also called atychiphobia) can be paralyzing and limit you from reaching your goals. However, once you’ve failed, there is nothing left to be afraid of. You’ve hit bottom, so now all you can do is head upward. Remember, failure should be looked at as positive, not negative. By changing your perception of failure you can learn to stop fearing it.

Failure sweetens success

Success is so much sweeter after you’ve experienced failure. You will appreciate your successes so much more if you can recall all the struggles you had to go through to get there. Failure will also help you not take your success for granted and allow you to celebrate all your victories, no matter how small they may be.

If you aren’t making mistakes, then you are doing everything you can to avoid them, which is an even bigger mistake. The more challenged we are, the more mistakes we will make. If we learn to approach failures in the right way, it is an opportunity for personal growth and learning.

Failure can be done poorly or it can be done well. So next time, fail better.

Resources

Kuiper, N.A. (1978). Depression and causal attributions for success and failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(3), 236.

Oster, C.V., Strong, J.S., & Zorn, C.K. (2013). Analyzing aviation safety: Problems, challenges, opportunities. Research in transportation economics, 43(1), 148-164.