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Learning from failure

Newsday Reporter Kanisa George -
Kanisa George -

Kanisa George

We've all been there. That job we didn't get, or that friendship that dwindled. It's easy to stay down in the face of defeat, but how we manage to get back on the horse says a lot about us and our ability to try again, even with the possibility of failure looming over us.

Defeat is not a welcoming scenario. Even as children, we struggle to process the loss of our first race or that friend who no longer wants to play with us. Defeat or failure is a tough pill to swallow, and sadly many of us, during the most impressionable stages, weren't taught the skills necessary to manage it.

I am yet to come across anyone, including myself, who gladly accepts failure with open arms. But some studies suggest that that's what we should be doing. And the key to embracing failures is learning to make defeat work for you. Of course, this comes with more than a handful of caveats, but the most important takeaway is the power of defeat to make us better. But first, you must work on your mindset.

Author Tim Harford found that the thought process we engage in after a failure can be the very thing that strengthens or diminishes our ability to succeed in future endeavours. Admittedly, this is mainly neurological, for when we experience failure, our brains release cortisol, leaving us feeling unsafe and constantly longing for acceptance.

Cortisol is the body's primary stress hormone, and it works alongside certain parts of your brain to regulate your mood, motivation, and fear. As a result, it triggers other negative emotions and connotes feelings and ideas of defeat, frustration, and disappointment. These all filter into views of self-worth, and well, the rest can be chalked up to self-sabotage. The reality is, failure in whatever capacity is often viewed as a lack of success and, with it, the inevitable social inertia. Are our failures viewed from an utterly intrinsic standpoint, or do we fall prey to the dictates of the world?

It's difficult to derive positive benefits from failure as most of us don't even allow ourselves to believe that anything positive can come out of defeat. So, when your marriage fails, or you aren't successful at the job interview, it's hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

But suppose we rework our perspective and our expectations surrounding failure. In that case, it's possible to control the emotional fallout even when our brain tries to make sense of the negative emotions. Instructively, we should focus not on the fear of failure sometimes built into us or the sense of embarrassment or lack of self-worth we feel but instead on developing tools to successfully navigate past failure and the torrent of emotions that go with it. Tackling failure head-on requires us to honestly acknowledge that it is part of the growing process and not just a part of the process but an important one. But once we tap into the superpower surrounding failure, it can do far more than we could ever imagine.

"Failure is seen as an opportunity to learn and grow," says Los Angeles-based psychologist Crystal Lee. "Failure is an opportunity to be embraced, analysed, and picked apart, rather than something to run away from."

Research shows that although experiences with failure mostly undermine subsequent performance, they are also frequently found to stimulate it.

Although failure has the potential to unleash a torrent of adverse emotional effects, on the other hand, it can also trigger your brain to grow as you take into account what went wrong. Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck found that once failure has occurred, the brain can enter "a more focused mental state" as they learn from what happened, encouraging mental growth and development. But for this to work, your mindset must be in sync with the desire to grow.

Doing away with the "loser effect," or in others, words being thrown off by failure instead of learning from it, is far more complex than most of us realise. But if we can master it, we'll be able to have a hold on our self-sabotaging nature.

For starters. try not to dwell on it. When we fixate on our failures, we invariably worry, become anxious and are less likely to learn from the experience.

One study suggests reframing and reimagining your failure. By editing out previous failures and visualising them getting smaller, you inevitably associate your loss with something less weighty, dulling its detriment on your brain and improving your outlook.

Also, avoid self-admonishment. When we experience failure, we never want to fail again and sometimes fail to try again or subconsciously punish ourselves by adopting a "do this right, or you'll end up like last time approach. This, according to psychologists, is known as "avoidance" or "prevention" motivation. This induces anxiety from fear of the potential negative outcome, which impairs performance.

Finally, it is important to measure and celebrate our progress. Each leg of the journey ought to be celebrated, no matter how small or inconsequential it might be.

Failure, we all know it. But what we do with it determines the path ahead.