For humans, the best way to grow is to learn from failure.
Many of us make mistakes on endless repeat – but new insights can help us to learn valuable lessons from our failures.
In today’s motivational literature, failure is often viewed as something to be celebrated. Disappointments are an essential stepping stone to success; a turning point in our life story that will ultimately end in triumph. Rather than falling into despair, we are encouraged to “fail forward”.
If only it were so simple. In the past decade, a wealth of psychological research has shown that most people struggle to handle failure constructively. Instead, we find ways to devalue the task at which we failed, meaning that we may be less motivated to persevere and reach our goal. This phenomenon is known as the “sour-grape effect”. Alternatively, we may simply fail to notice our errors and blithely continue as if nothing has happened, something that prevents us from learning a better strategy to improve our performance in the future.
Inspirational speakers are fond of quoting the words of the novelist Samuel Beckett: “Fail again. Fail better”. But the truth is that most of us fail again and fail the same.
Recent research shows there are ways to avoid these traps. These solutions are often counterintuitive: one of the best ways of learning from your mistakes, for example, is to offer advice to another person who may be encountering similar challenges. By helping others avoid failure, it turns out, you can also enhance your own prospects of success.
Approaches to learn from failure
The ‘sour-grape effect’
Let’s first examine the sour-grape effect, discovered by Hallgeir Sjåstad, a professor of psychology and leadership at the Norwegian School of Economics, and colleagues.
He says he was intrigued by people’s tendency to abandon their dreams prematurely rather than learn from failure.
In his first experiment, Sjåstad asked participants to take a practice trial of a test to measure their intuition’s precision.
After answering a couple of practice questions, the participants were given sham feedback – either very positive or very negative. They were then asked to predict how difficult it would be to perform well in the real test, and how happy they would feel if they scored 100%.
Sjåstad hypothesized that the people given negative feedback about their practice answers would underestimate the importance of their future performance for their emotional state. And this was exactly what happened.
The people who felt they’d failed on the practice run predicted that a perfect score would do little to increase their immediate happiness. Crucially, this did not turn out to be accurate; when they took a second test and were told they received top marks, the good news did make them happy. They had been completely wrong in assuming that the result would not make them proud.
He has also tested the sour-grape effect in real life, among students at a Norwegian university. He found that simply reminding students of a currently low grade-point average led the students to significantly devalue the predicted benefits of graduating with an A average.
To cope or learn from failure Sjåstad suspects that the sour-grape effect could influence motivation in many areas of life. If you have one bad interview for your dream job, you might decide you don’t really want to work in that field after all, and so you stop applying for similar positions. The same goes if you fail to impress at a sports trial, or if a publisher rejects the first submission of your manuscript.
Sjåstad isn’t claiming that we should always persevere in all our goals; it can be healthy to put ambitions in perspective and change course if the process is no longer making us happy. But the sour-grape effect may lead us to make this decision prematurely, he says, rather than seeing whether we might learn and improve.
The ‘ostrich effect’
Devaluing the source of your disappointment is one way your mind may avoid coping constructively with failure; another coping mechanism is to hide your head in the sand, shifting your attention away from the upsetting situation so that you don’t have to process it.
Researchers have long known that we often turn a blind eye to incoming bad news. Economists, for instance, have found that investors are less likely to check their financial status when their fortunes are falling rather than rising.
This phenomenon has been called the “ostrich effect”, and it may be an example of a far wider tendency to overlook negative information, according to a series of recent studies by Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University, US, and Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Fortunately, Fishbach’s research with Eskreis-Winkler suggests that there are some strategies to overcome the emotional barriers to learn from failure.
The first is a process called ‘self-distancing’, in which you adopt a third-person perspective. Instead of asking “Why did I fail?” I might ask “Why did David fail?”, for example. Multiple studies by psychologist Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan show that self-distancing helps to soften our negative emotional reactions, allowing us to view upsetting events more objectively. In this case, it should mean that the failure feels less threatening to the ego, so that we can better analyze the reasons and learn from failure.
A second strategy involves offering advice to others who may be in the same position as you, which Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach tested with Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. They found that the satisfaction of helping another person provides a personal ego boost so that people feel more confident to confront and learn from failure.
People who were struggling with weight loss, for example, wrote out tips based on their own failures for other people trying to stick to a diet. Afterward, they felt more motivated to continue pursuing their own weight goal. Middle-school students, meanwhile, were asked to describe ways to overcome a lack of academic motivation to another, younger student; over the next four weeks, they overcame their own procrastination and completed significantly more homework, compared to students who had instead received a letter giving advice.
To learn from failure, Sjåstad points out that failures are an inevitable part of life. “If you never fail, you’re probably aiming too low,” he says. And to learn from failure and learn from their lessons, you may find the road to success a little easier to navigate.