The psychological secret to turning your next failure into success

Warning: this is going to sting

Warning: this is going to sting

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Dwelling on failure isn't just for pessimists and existentialists anymore. Entrepreneurs, self-helpers, and athletes are all adopting slogans like  "Fail early, fail often, fail forward", "fail better" and "fail up". These are not types of people known for failure. They are the voices of optimism, positive thinking and success. Even Will Smith, paragon of positivity and success, has embraced failure. Chipper  entrepreneurial types are telling anyone who will listen actively to seek failure, and to be happywhen we find it!

Why? Failure isn't just inevitable, it's invaluable. In Smith's words, "failure is where all the lessons are." The basic thought is that we learn by encountering obstacles and then figuring out how to overcome them. No failure, no improvement. Imagine trying to teach a child to read without ever telling them when they get it wrong. Because of its pedagogical value, failure is the road to success. And you want to succeed don't you?

Doesn't failure beget failure?

Almost by definition, we pursue success. Succeeding means we've achieved what we set out to do. It feels great and, according to one study, it produces a "warm glow" that makes us more generous, more helpful, and more attentive to others. But even beyond that, the conventional wisdom is that success begets success. The rationale behind this thought is that winning boosts our sense of self-efficacy, AKA confidence, which in turn imparts a psychological momentum that allows us to keep on winning.

The reverse effect, failure begetting failure, is also well-known. One of the most dramatic examples of this is when athletes choke. One mistake sends a shadow of self-doubt flickering across the mind. The second makes a hairline crack in their self-confidence which, when the pressure is high enough, can shatter the entire structure leading to total collapse. Failing feels awful. It can break our self-esteem and remind us of all the ways in which we are inadequate. According to prevailing wisdom, this makes us all the more likely to keep on failing.

This presents a puzzle. We need to fail to learn and improve, but failing is miserable and it might also destroy the confidence we need to carry on. What can we do? According to the new pro-failure philosophy, we ought to reframe our failures, and learn to see them as crucial ingredients to improvement and success. If we learn to view losing as the path to winning, we can avoid the doldrums of defeat and temper our fear of failure. Perhaps we have not failed at all! We have just won an opportunity to improve! By mentally transforming the negative into a positive, we can have the cake of success without being force-fed the humble pie of failure. Is this true? Can we reap the benefits of failure by learning to fail happily?

Happy failure or useful failure, not both

Recent research in psychology suggests that we may have to choose between benefitting from failure and being happy about it.

The good news is that the conventional wisdom is wrong; failure does not beget failure.

In a recent study, Jean-Charles Lebeau and a team of psychologists had their participants complete a golf-related putting task. Participants couldn't see where the putts ended up, but were told whether they had succeeded or failed. The results confirmed what we all know: failing feels lousy. Not only did those in the failure condition feel more negative emotions, they also had a lower sense of self-efficacy (AKA confidence). However, those who failed did just as well on subsequent tasks as those basking in success, even if they did so less happily. Failure does not necessarily make us do worse or give up. We can learn from our mistakes even without mentally reframing them as positives.

The bad news is that reframing failures as positive might actually stop us from learning from them. A sugary spoonful of positive thinking spoils the bitter medicine of defeat. A recent study in the Journal of Behavioural Decision-Making finds that emotional responses to failure are much more motivating than cognitive ones. All subjects in the experiment were exposed to an experience of failure. Half of them were were asked to consider how they felt about failing on an experimental task (i.e. lousy). This half engaged in self-improving behaviour: they spent more effort and time on subsequent tasks and were more likely to improve. The others were instructed to consider their "objective thoughts" about failing. They tended to produce "self-protective cognitions", meaning that they tended to think up reasons why they weren't really to blame for falling short. Since they didn't take responsibility, they did nothing to improve their performance. The medicine doesn't just happen to be bitter. The bitterness is the medicine.  It's feeling bad about failure that motivates people to dig up the sources of their shortcomings and put in the effort to make sure it doesn't happen again. We benefit most from failure by harnessing the motivating power of negative emotions rather than rationalizing those feelings away.

How to fail better

So how can we fail better? The first step is admitting defeat. If you want to learn from failure, you need to know that you failed. Avoid mentally transforming it into a happy opportunity for learning or a component of success. You also need to know that you failed. Your brain's natural impulse is to lie to protect you from uncomfortable emotions. This is why people tend to take too much credit for their successes, but attribute their failures to situational factors or things beyond their control. It's called "self-serving bias" and it helps you to avoid blame. Avoid this too. If you don't take responsibility for your failure, you won't care enough to change.

Once we admit defeat and blame ourselves, we should lean into our dark feels. It is also important to lean into the right dark feels. "Low arousal" emotions like shame, boredom, and lethargy can sap your motivation to improve. If you start to regard yourself as an irredeemable failure, then you will be more likely to give up than persevere. Instead, you should aim for "high arousal" emotions, such as anger, defiance, and envy. These will help fuel your efforts to improve.

The new enthusiasm for failure gets a lot right. Failure is inevitable, and failure helps us grow. But we shouldn't be happy about it. The true gift of failure is that it hurts. Feeling your negative emotions can only make you stronger.

Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.