We’ve all failed. After weeks, months, or even years of preparation, there’s come a time when nothing has gone as planned and the sharp sting of failure has caused unprecedented and irreparable damage to our self-esteem.
Stuart Firestein in his book “Failure — Why science is so successful” links failure to the second law of thermodynamics. “Success requires an unusual, but possible, confluence of events in which entropy is temporarily reversed,” he says. “Failure is the default.”
What he means is that success, by definition, is very limited. Failure is universal and inevitable. Then why don’t we talk about it?
As a society, we’ve been hardwired to talk about—and revel in—success. We’re advised that anything other than success must be quickly processed, covered up and forgotten.
We learn this early in school when we fear failing tests, subjects, and, ultimately, better chances in life. This experience colours our perception of failure with great negativity. We ignore that failure is perhaps what’s most pervasive in the normal course of a person’s life.
We’ve all heard stories of how people spectacularly succeeded after failing but it’s their success we eventually focus upon, not their failure. We treat their stories of failures as just that—stories. Knowing and discussing failures can have a huge impact on people of all ages. And this thought has been backed by research.
In 2016, the cognitive-studies researcher Xiaodong Lin-Siegler of Columbia University’s Teachers College published a study which found that high-school students’ science grades improved after they learned about the personal and intellectual struggles of scientists including Einstein and Marie Curie.
The message that they were sent was that since we cannot avoid failure, it will be far more effective if we alert ourselves to it and think of it as a learning experience, rather than guarding ourselves against it.
But failure alone is meaningless. One must have the maturity to learn from it, and the ability to recognise the emotional muscle or resilience which failure develops in all of us. It’s resilience that allows us keep trying and possibly, head down the path of success. Talking about failure, therefore, to ourselves and others, would help us build resilience by understanding it, learning from it, and therefore, recovering from it.
Talks and conferences such as FailCon, Fail Festival, Fail Safe, among others, have set a great precedent for discussing failure. Some non-profits have also started to release impact reports which contain not just what they did right, but in fact whole sections on failures.
And of course, there’s the inimitable anti- resumé.
When author Monica Byrne started to see career victories, a lot of artists approached her and asked her how she did it. To tell them about the context of her victories, she did something many others would have considered a gamble. “I compiled six years’ worth of spreadsheets of submissions to literary journals, workshops, conferences, theatres, graduate schools, playgroups, grants, fellowships, residencies, and prizes,” she said.
The compilation helped demonstrate that her success rate was, actually, 3 percent. She called it her “anti-resumé”.
Conferences, talks, articles on failure or even anti-resumes trigger a much-needed discussion on failure—a punch which can breaks the superficiality of success. It’s also a tried and tested technique to make friends. In a working paper, for instance, Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School, writes that discussing failures can help humanise the sharer by making her appear more approachable and relatable in the workplace.
In fact, workplaces are where we must talk about failure the most.
Shumel Ellis from the Tel Aviv University and his colleague conducted a field experiment with two companies of soldiers in the Israel Defence Forces. The first company received after-event reviews that focussed on the mistakes the soldiers made and how to correct them. The second company, on the other hand, focused on what could be learnt from both their successes and failures.
After two months when the exercise was repeated, it was found that although substantial learning occurred in both groups, soldiers who discussed both successes and failures learned faster, at higher rates than soldiers who discussed just failures. The conclusion was that they had developed “richer mental models” of their experiences than the soldiers who only discussed failures. What worked for them was analysing not just what went wrong but also what went right — two crucial insights for success.
Ultimately, we will all fail but that’s not what we should focus upon. Instead, we should think about how we failed and what we learnt from it. And the first step for either is to start talk about failure.