Failure can teach us a lot, but the key to success is knowing how to make it a temporary detour, not a dead end. By Janet Wilson.
Failure – everything from blunders and botch-ups to catastrophes and disasters – attracts its fair share of glib bumper-sticker solutions. Fear and shame are the bedfellows of failure, while its twin, success, enjoys all the limelight. And that's because we don't learn from it.
For all the proclamations about failure being a "teachable moment", in five studies at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, failure did the opposite: it undermined learning.
Researchers Ayelet Fishbach and Lauren Eskreis-Winkler asked dozens of teachers to recall a specific time they had been successful and a specific time they had failed at work. When asked which stories the teachers would choose to share to help other teachers, nearly 70 per cent chose a success rather than a failure.
The same thing happened when they asked online volunteers to think of times they had succeeded at staying focused at work, compared with times they'd failed and become distracted.
"Across five studies, participants learnt less from failure feedback than from success feedback – even when both types of feedback contained full information on the correct answer," the two researchers wrote in a research article for the Association for Psychological Science.
"Failure feedback undermined learning motivation because it was ego threatening: it caused participants to tune out and stop processing information."
Happy and resilient
Elizabeth Peterson thinks it's more complex than that. The associate professor of psychology runs the University of Auckland's 5E Lab (Engage – Enhance – Enliven – Educate – Enable), a research group dedicated to producing "happy, healthy, resilient and well-rounded people", which is studying failure in the education system.
"Emotion is the big bit that we're missing," she says. "When we stuff something up, we have an emotional response and we often don't allow people to have that emotional response. New Zealanders are pretty bad at this. It's often a 'she'll be right, mate' kind of attitude, rather than allowing us to sit with the discomfort and vulnerability and see it as normal and then, once we have calmed down, taking that opportunity to learn from it, rather than escaping or withdrawing from it."
Peterson is working with a PhD student who is using data from the "Growing Up in New Zealand" multidisciplinary study of Kiwi kids and their development. During interviews, researchers recorded some of the children, now aged eight, and their mothers talking about a recent setback. They are analysing the data.
"Does the parent acknowledge the emotion? Who comes up with the emotion first? Is emotion even mentioned? Do they go straight to solution mode?" asks Peterson. "Or do they not go to solution mode and say, 'Don't worry, you'll be fine next time.' We're trying to see how New Zealand parents are modelling and guiding a failure-type conversation."
There's a big "but" when it comes to the issue, though. "If failure becomes your norm, then that's a bit different, then that's where you give up."
"Talking about failure is difficult and the conversation may need to change depending on how much failure you have in your life. A few years ago, I gave a public talk about how we need to talk more openly about failure, and one woman challenged me, saying, 'I'm from South Auckland and kids there are struggling all the time. They don't need to talk about failure, they just need to succeed.'
"I couldn't have agreed more. Children first need to experience some success to feel good about themselves. They feel especially good if they have put in effort and then succeed, as this helps develop their sense of self, their confidence, their frustration tolerance and their resilience. You definitely need some padding underneath you before you start to have big conversations about bouncing back from failure."
The good news? Failure doesn't have to be an absolute. Change really can occur with effort and persistence – and there's plenty of research that shows how this can be done. It all comes down to how you view your failure, which determines your future success.
More than 30 years ago, Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck produced research that showed what we believe about our own intelligence has a significant effect on our motivation, effort and approach to challenges.
If you believe that your intelligence is a "fixed mindset" and it is set in stone, then you are likely to avoid challenges, give up easily, see effort as fruitless, ignore constructive criticism and feel threatened by the success of others. You know the type? Gore Vidal, that most arch and patrician of American writers, demonstrated it well when he said, "Every time a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies."
Contrast that with those who believe their intelligence is malleable and can be developed through effort and support, who adopt a "growth mindset" where challenge is embraced, effort is the path to mastery and criticism can be instructive.
"Growth mindset" is a huge tool in Gilbert Enoka's arsenal. As the All Blacks manager responsible for leadership and mental skills, he knows that "you're not defined by failing in a certain area".
Enoka trains individuals to identify moments of weakness that require mental strength and work through how they will respond. "It's about thriving under pressure," he says, and although failure is "brutal", he tries to make it a teaching experience. "The key is to make failure your teacher, not your undertaker. It's a temporary detour, not a dead end.
"You have to go to those tough moments so that you can stand in them and see yourself succeeding. We need to identify those moments that require mental strength and get the players to work out what they would do inside those situations."
Putting failure in context is important to the All Blacks. "We don't see failure as just one thing. Rugby is not who we are. Can you imagine a bridge that is made up of many planks – each plank representing a different identity – father, son, brother, cousin, mate.
"It is important that we understand and nourish the different identities that maketh the player. By doing this, when we get stress inside one identity – for example, our rugby plank – the other planks provide stability as we traverse life's journey."
Enoka says failure for the ABs is a shared experience. "'We' trumps 'me'. You will never succeed on your own, but you will be successful as an individual if the team functions well. It's not about being above or below – it's about being side by side."
A fixed and a growth mindset lie on a continuum – something that Darsel Keane, the associate director of the University of Auckland's Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, knows well.
Last year, the centre took 1800 students through its extra-curricular programme while teaching in academic courses 2500 students to develop their entrepreneurial mindset and capability for start-ups through to social enterprises and corporate innovation. It used experiments, coaching and workshops.
"People can have a growth mindset in some areas, then a fixed mindset in others," she says. "You may have convinced yourself that you're terrible at maths and therefore can't learn maths, but that you have great athletic ability and therefore, when you hit a setback, you pick yourself up and try to get better."
Persistence and grit play their part, too. "Oh, I think it's a huge part of it," Keane says. "Because without grit and resilience failure will inevitably be failure.
"Grit is very much about that ability to pick yourself up. Through hard work and diligence, you can overcome setbacks and reject failures when pursuing goals. And I think that without grit and resilience, failure will stop you in your tracks."
Not every failure leads to success, though. And what differentiates the winners from the losers is not persistence, research shows. And if that's the case, what ultimately produces the results we all dream about?
Dashun Wang, associate professor of management and organisations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, studied the "mechanism governing the dynamics of failure" using big data to research three different fields.
First, the team studied more than 776,000 grant applications to the US National Institutes of Health from 1985 to 2015. Then, they investigated the start-up investment records of more than 58,000 entrepreneurs from the National Venture Capital Association from 1970 to 2016 and whether the business had a successful exit.
And finally, in a radically different arena, they used information from the Global Terrorism Database, tracking more than 170,000 terrorist attacks by 3178 terrorist organisations, assessing each group's pattern of success (at least one fatality) and failure among attacks.
In analysing hundreds of thousands of individual efforts, Wang and his team were able to identify a tipping point that separates failure into two dynamics – "stagnation" and "progression" regions.
In stagnation, people learn very little from their failures, failing to analyse what they did right and wrong and throwing out prior attempts altogether.
Progression is marked by using feedback to make "intelligent improvement" – keeping the stuff that works and focusing on what doesn't – that little by little produces better attempts and, ultimately, victory.
The key to progression is "failing fast", the concept Silicon Valley abides by. This means the time between consecutive failed attempts should decrease steadily. The faster you fail, the more likely your chance of success.
At the Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Keane practises failing fast, but there's a caveat: you have to fail small.
"I'm not a fan of this 'Let's try everything and just put it out there.' But I think well-thought-out plans, experiments and tests, learning from them and failing fast are a smart thing to do."
Part of the centre's portfolio is called Maker Space, which is an opportunity for students to prototype their designs. It may start with a sketch or Plasticine model.
In every variation of this prototype, from a low-fidelity one to what may be closest to a market final, "you are making small failures", she says. "But in our environment we have workshops, we have training, we've got experts you can call on to talk to for advice and support.
"And so the failure – if you 3D-print something and for whatever reason it falls to pieces or it doesn't quite work the same way – is actually a learning opportunity. It's not this has failed; it's just that this method didn't work, so how can we approach it differently?"
Elizabeth Peterson agrees. "If the consequences of failure become too high-stakes, then it's too late to get the benefits from learning, which means that you need to get the learning environment right to make it safe to make the mistakes, and ideally you need to start small to get the learning in early, when it's much easier to bounce back."
And she has some sage advice for how parents can help their kids learn how to navigate failure and practise on the smaller stuff, how they can have the most difficult of conversations when their child comes home from school with a report that shows they've failed.
It's a matter of talking with them calmly, not getting emotionally triggered, and being fully present, she says. Then you can ask, "How do you feel about that?"
"This is really hard to do well. The tricky bit is not to put the words into kids' mouths, to name their feeling for them or to dismiss their feeling as wrong, just because their feelings and interpretations of events are different from yours.
"Ideally, we would elicit the feelings from them and then validate their emotions without judgment. But we need to try not to fall into the validation trap of attempting to convince them their thoughts are not accurate – 'You're not stupid', 'Of course you can do it', 'You shouldn't think like that or say that', 'Don't blame the teachers, they are not all idiots' – as that invalidates them. It tells your kid their feelings are wrong and it's more likely to make them defensive and feel misunderstood."
Peterson maintains that once kids feel they are seen and understood, it is easier for them to regulate their emotions. It may take a couple of days or longer before you can rationally return to the topic and start to unpick what happened and brainstorm some next steps. She suggests you can then start to ask, "What do you think went wrong?", "Was it effort?", "Was it strategy?" or "Was it luck?" "Could they have done anything differently?"
"All the while we need to try not to be judgmental, so their defences don't go up and shut down the conversation.
"Ultimately, the aim is to get kids to reflect on the issue calmly, to identify the different points of view and what could have been done differently. Then we need to help them identify the resources they could have drawn on – internal and external – and what they could do to get those resources working for them next time. Finally, they need a clear action plan with concrete, achievable and ideally measurable next steps.
"By modelling and scaffolding this sort of process in our conversations with kids, we are teaching them that when they find themselves in a situation where something goes wrong, they have a familiar process of working through it, from allowing themselves to feel the emotion and seeing the situation from different angles, to identifying resources and possible strategies and making an action plan for the future.
"If we model and guide this as a process for dealing with setbacks, hopefully, with time, it will get quicker and then become an automatic process they can use by themselves without the need to have it scaffolded by an adult."
Which is what we older, bigger kids need to do for ourselves as well. Instead of putting our heads in the sand, face up, stand back and learn, using grit and perseverance.