Give Failure its Due

Last week we delved into the world of stepping back to grow

Sometimes too there is failure. Whenever we start something new there is this fantasy of a perfectly linear world. Sometimes dreams come true. And sometimes they don’t.

You started a company and it went belly up. You launched a new product and not only did it fail to sell, customers actually hated it. You got fired. What happens when you dare to transform yourself and then your progress flatlines – or you’re tossed off the curve altogether? What then?

Today we are going to look at the sixth personal transformer

Brene Brown stated that failure is particularly acute for corporate professionals. When the ethos is kill or be killed. Control or be controlled. Failure is being killed and it can elicit massive shame. There’s the plucky Henry Ford quotation, which admittedly I have used: “Failure is only the opportunity more intelligently to begin again.” Since Ford was eventually wildly successful, this aphorism does reassure me, but it also jauntily skips over the emotional, psychological, practical and neurochemical complexity of failure

My failures range from the mundane, not making the first-eighteen football team at school, for example – to the egoist of being passed over for a promotion, to the embarrassment of a misfired speech, to the devastating setbacks of backing a business opportunity that never got any momentum. No matter how many chirpy quotes I may read, when I fail my initial response is despondency, pessimism, and the urge to relocate to another city because I can never show my face in public. Ever. Again. I tend to identify with Margery Eldredge Howell, who said: “There’s dignity in suffering, nobility in pain, but failure is a salted wound that burns and burns again.”

Our abhorrence of and shrinking from failure typically starts when we are children. Researchers Carol Dweck & Claudia Mueller conducted a study that examined how different kinds of praise would affect fifth graders. The children were given three sets of problems.

Dweck and Mueller discovered that the children praised for their intelligence did roughly 25% worse on the final set of problems compared to the first, and were likely to blame their performance on a lack of ability. Consequently, they enjoyed working on the problems less and gave up sooner. Children praised for effort performed roughly 2.5% better than the first set, blamed their difficulty on not trying hard enough, persisted longer, and enjoyed the experience.

This is particularly the case when it comes to children playing sport. For those of us who make the weekend pilgrimage watching our kids participate in a team environment, it is horrifying when the ‘ugly’ parent emerges. As my mentor Matt Church often remarks in a keynote on this topic: “I just tell my kids how much I enjoy watching them play.” According to the research of social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson, “people with above-average aptitudes often judge their abilities not only more harshly, but fundamentally differently, than others do. Gifted children grow up to be more vulnerable and less confident when they should be the most confident…” Halvorson continues, “the kind of feedback we get from parents and teachers as young children has a major impact on the implicit beliefs we develop about our abilities – including whether we see them as innate and unchangeable, or as capable of developing through effort and practice.”

There are neurochemical reasons we hate failure too. Organisational anthropologist Judith E. Glaser explains, “Whenever we are in a tense situation or meeting and feel that we are losing ground, our body makes a chemical choice about how best to protect itself – in this case from the shame and loss of power associated with being wrong. In terms of neurochemistry, our brain is being hijacked.” In these high-stress situations, says Glaser, “the hormone and neurotransmitter cortisol floods the brain and the gap between expectation and reality shuts down.” In layman’s terms we then operate in fight or flight mode, with the default response being to fight or continue to argue for what we believe in. Fighting feels better than failing.

“When you argue and win,” explains Glaser, “Your brain floods with adrenaline and dopamine, which makes you feel good, dominant, even invincible.” So the next time you are in a tense situation, you argue again. And become addicted to being right. If you are addicted to being right, you cant exactly partake in the kind of humble inquiry that’s an essential part of growth. Rather than fight it or flee it, we must learn to face failure. As Harvard psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar writes, “Fear of failure, resulting from often unrealistic and perfectionist demands is one of the key detractors from learning, leading to lack of creativity and procrastination.”

So learn to fail or fail to learn.

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