What Happens When You Fail?

April 10, 2018

by Zadra Rose Ibañez, Director of Operations

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”― Thomas A. Edison

As we attempt new challenges, we are faced with opportunities for growth, and change, but with those opportunities comes the risk of failure. While we intellectually understand that, in order to grow we must take chances and try things we cannot accomplish until the skill has been learned, it doesn’t seem to help how we feel about failing.

Rose Costas said, in her article “8 Reasons You Should Be Happy When You Fail,”  “We fail because we are growing, we are exploring and we want solutions to life’s problems.  When you have failed and have gotten over your disappointment, you are much more likely to dig deeper within you for strength you didn’t even know you had.  You will realize what you are truly made of and how resilient you are.”

When You FailSource

In his book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, Tim Harford writes, “We’re so anxious not to “draw a line under a decision we regret” that we end up causing still more damage while trying to erase it.”  He gives the example of poker players who’ve lost money and make riskier bets than they’d normally take, in an attempt to win the lost money back and “erase the mistake.”

But the thought process that we engage in after a failure can be the thing that strengthens or diminishes our ability to succeed in future endeavors.  So how can we train ourselves to respond positively to defeat?

When we experience a win, our brains release endorphins, dopamine and serotonin, which encourage us to engage in a task again.  When we experience a failure, our brains release cortisol and do not leave us with feelings of acceptance and safety.

Neurologist Judy Willis, MD, shares that  “neuroimaging studies reveal….there are specific and reproducible patterns of changing neural activity and brain structures associated with stress.”  She states that in the high-stress state, scans reveal less activity in the higher, reflective brain and more activity in the lower, reactive brain that directs involuntary behaviors and emotional responses and that, over time, the density and speed of the neuron-to-neuron connections in the emotion-driven reactive networks of the lower brain increase and corresponding connections in prefrontal cortex conscious control centers decrease.

Basically, dwelling on outcomes can make the neuropathways stronger, so a more helpful activity is to rewire your brain to get used to the feeling of succeeding, rather than the expectation of failure.  She recommends setting goals that allow you to  experience “frequent recognition feedback of incremental progress.” Reaching these goals will release dopamine, which creates feelings of satisfaction, increases motivation, curiosity, perseverance and memory.”

Dr. Mills advises, “Since your goal is to rewire your brain’s expectations that your efforts will yield progress, even through increasing challenge, you need to really want the goal. This is not the time to challenge yourself with something you feel you should do but won’t really look forward to doing, such as dieting, climbing stadium stairs, or flossing after every meal. Select a goal that you would enjoy en route and at the finish.”

This does not mean we should eliminate the risk for failure, else we stop growing.  In his article “Positive Intelligence,” author Shawn Achor reminds us “It’s important to remember that stress has an upside.”  His advice for when you’re overwhelmed (or focusing on failures) is to make a list of the stresses you’re under.  Separate them into two groups – the ones you can control and those you can’t  – and then choose one item that you can control and come up with a small, concrete step you can take to reduce it. In this way you can nudge your brain back to a positive—and productive—mind-set.

When You FailSource

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