Using Failure As an Opportunity to Reflect Instead of Feeling Defeated: Let's Strive to "Fail Better"

Failure shouldn't have to make us feel horrible. Instead, let's re-frame how we think about failures in terms of success when we communicate, manage, and educate.
09/26/2014 04:44 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2014

Failure makes us feel horrible. We all know the strong aversive reaction we display when we fail to achieve what we set out for ourselves. In fact, many of us grew up in a culture where failing was always negative. Those moments at school when the teacher, following our remark, snarled back "You're wrong" reverberate in our minds when we think about failure. However, we also know that failing can be very beneficial for long-term success. Indeed, sports practice meticulously focuses on, and even records, failures in order to later improve a player's game. Here, I argue that it is this view of failures as 'success-in-progress', rather than as negative events, that can help us achieve our goals better in the long term.

Failure is painful. Even on a neurophysiological level, failing to meet expectations triggers a reaction in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain associated with physical experiences of pain. As a result, we become more risk averse and are more likely to stay with what we know, tending to stick with the status quo more than daring to change (possibly for the better). Although this caution can be adaptive in that we avoid further pain, this also means that we fail to take the chance to try again and improve, to advance, to become better at the thing that we once failed at.

Consider this example from baseball. Imagine a hitter with a long and productive career who maintains a .300 average - that is, he gets a base hit about 30% of the time (i.e., he safely reaches first base). With this average, he could earn a great deal of money and accrue a lot of fame. Yet, put differently, the same baseball player fails the other 70% of the time, meaning the vast majority of his attempts at home plate result in "making an out". If this were the adopted perspective, similar to the way we often think about failure, it could pose a potentially serious threat to the player's sense of personal worth and social regard.

This very simple example denotes the power of 'framing', a widely established effect in psychology. In most cases, framing implies a risk being presented as either a gain (e.g., "You have a 30% chance of survival") or a loss (e.g., "You have a 70% chance of death"). Study after study has shown that this simple difference in the presentation of odds can lead to different behavioral outcomes, with individuals far more likely to pursue a medical treatment if framed in the gain frame rather than the loss frame.

In the same way, I propose that we start relabeling supposed failures as 'success-in-progress'. This requires a broader view of a behavior or response than the narrow and short-term evaluation we currently employ. Failures are not bad per se - instead, they provide important input on which areas we need to improve. Framing them in terms of potential future success could also motivate behavior in the same domain. For example, when I was a tennis player as a teen, my coach would videotape me at practice and then go over my serve in excruciating frame-by-frame detail. Rather than pointing out what I did wrong, he instead noted what I did right in comparison with the last time and showed me the progress I had made relative to older recordings. Then, once he had set the time frame as longer term and as a journey toward success, he pointed out areas that we needed to continue working on. As a result, I felt much more motivated and wanted to improve. I went back to the court, and failed, and failed, and failed over again - until at some point, at the next video analysis, I had failed better. Such is the power of framing.

Of course, I don't believe that we should fail in all environments, at all points in time. There are times when failing is not an option - after all, we wouldn't want an engineer to fail while planning the construction of the car we will drive. Instead, I propose that we create safe spaces for failure, where checks and balances are put in place and a supportive environment allows us to commit mistakes without serious repercussions. It is only in these spaces that we can learn how to avoid those mistakes in the future.

How could such a safe space be created in the professional realm? Maybe by giving your employees a project that's out of reach and then presenting the results internally for constructive feedback. Or, in the words of systems biologist Uri Alon (link to his TED talk), by creating "yes, and..." spaces where each proposed idea is first agreed to and then further developed, all before evaluating its realization potential. Instead of worrying about failing, safe spaces for failure allow us to give a project our all, and whatever comes, we know it was our best effort.

Failure shouldn't have to make us feel horrible. Instead, let's re-frame how we think about failures in terms of success when we communicate, manage, and educate. Instead of measuring career averages of outs-at-bat, let's measure batting averages for all of our goals. If we can turn just a fraction of failures into feelings of success-in-progress by creating safe spaces for failure, we can enable a generation of individuals to learn how to fail better - and, in the end, succeed in positively impacting us all.