We’re often afraid of failure. We see it as something to be avoided at all costs. But what if I told you that it’s okay to fail? In fact, what if I told you it’s actually good to fail from time to time?
Our perception of failure has changed greatly throughout history.
In Ancient Greece, failure was not seen as negative, but rather as an unavoidable part of life. A common theme among many of the Great Greek Tragedies such as Oedipus Rex and the Odyssey is that sometimes bad things can happen to good people, so we should remain sympathetic and understanding to those confronting failure.
If we fast forward to the time of Napoleon in France, however, he was a strong believer in meritocracy. He believed that opportunities should be available to the talented rather than the privileged. As such, failure during this time was seen as reflective of one’s lack of ability or talent.
Nowadays, the lines are blurred. Most people tend to view failure as a negative – something to be avoided whenever possible. However, some groups invite failure and instead view it as something to be celebrated. The interesting thing is that these same groups tend to include some of the most successful people in the world. This may sound paradoxical; however, it makes a lot of sense when you peel back the curtain.
Here’s why failure can be a good thing and how you can use failure to become the best version of yourself.
1 | Dopamine and Failure
To understand why failure is important, let’s start with the biology of failure and how it relates to building healthy habits.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in our mood, motivation, time perception, and mindset. Due to these roles, it also colors our perception of success and failure. If our dopamine levels are high, we will generally feel good and highly motivated; however, when they are low we often feel bad and unmotivated. As a result, success is often associated with high levels of dopamine and failure with low levels of dopamine; however, this doesn’t tell the full story.
Dopamine levels fluctuate throughout the day. We have a baseline dopamine level that peaks and troughs, depending on our behavior. How good we feel isn’t a measure of how much dopamine we have, but rather the change in our dopamine levels from baseline. The higher the peak is above or trough is below our baseline, the better or worse we feel. Therefore, the two factors that influence our mood and motivation are our baseline dopamine and our recent dopamine peaks.
When you accomplish something positive, your body releases high levels of dopamine and you feel good; however, you also deplete most of your readily accessible dopamine. This causes you to dip below baseline for a while afterward as you don’t have more dopamine readily available.
As a result, if you keep trying to chase those wins and get those peaks in your dopamine, over time your baseline dopamine levels become lower and lower. When this occurs, not only do you feel worse on average, but it takes bigger and bigger wins to peak your dopamine levels. As such, the more you repeatedly succeed at something, the less enjoyment you get out of it. Here’s an example.
Let’s say you’re playing a video game that you’re good at. If you win every single time you play, winning eventually stops being enjoyable. The challenge is gone. Conversely, if you are really bad at that game and you lose every single time, it won’t be enjoyable either. The way to get around this is to have an intermittent reward pattern. To find long-term enjoyment in an activity, you have to “win” sometimes but you also have to “lose” sometimes.
This is the same reason that gambling is so addictive. Sometimes you win money and sometimes you lose money, but neither one happens every time. As a result, you can peak your dopamine levels without decreasing your baseline.
2 | Why Failure Isn’t Always Bad
These same intermittent reward patterns don’t always have to be negative, however. By understanding how your dopamine signaling is influenced by success and failure, you can use it to reinforce good habits.
Dopamine is involved in time perception. If we’re enjoying something, time seems to fly by. If we aren’t, time seems to drag on. But there’s another component to this. If you’re focusing on the end goal instead of the process, the process itself often becomes more challenging. This is best demonstrated by a classic 1973 study that looked at intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation in children.
The researchers theorized that if you start doing something that you enjoy for some sort of reward, the activity itself can become less enjoyable. To test this hypothesis, they took a group of children who enjoyed drawing and randomly assigned them to one of three groups.
The first group of children was told they’d get a certificate with a gold seal and ribbon if they drew a picture. The second group received the same reward but wasn’t told about it until after the drawing was completed. The last group expected no reward and was not given a reward. After the drawing activity, these children were monitored over the next few days through one-way mirrors to see how much they continued drawing on their own.
What they found was that the children who expected the reward were less likely to engage in drawing for fun. Even more interesting was that those who received a surprise reward were the most likely to engage in drawing for fun.
What’s important to note is that all of these children enjoyed drawing at the beginning of the experiment. But by associating the activity of drawing with an extrinsic reward (the certificate with the gold seal), the researchers were able to decrease the child’s intrinsic motivation to draw.
Now you may be asking yourself, “how does this relate to dopamine and failure?”
The presence or absence of a reward can be thought of as the difference between success and failure. If we only do things that we’re sure we’ll succeed at and try to avoid failure at all costs, we only make the process of reaching our goal that much harder.
We rationalize that we are only doing the task so we can get the reward at the end. As a result, we are less likely to lean into hard work in the future.
Instead of focusing on the outcome, you want to focus on the process instead. Try adopting a growth mindset and let the incremental improvements be your measure of success instead of the outcome or end goal.
If you’re studying for an exam, instead of focusing on getting an A and tying how you feel to how you perform, try to find enjoyment in learning and increasing your knowledge. In doing so, you can learn to find enjoyment and peak your dopamine from the process and not the outcome. When you learn to love the process and don’t focus on the outcome, you’re less likely to be held back by fear of failure. It’s okay to fail because your enjoyment of that activity is not tied to your success or failure.
This also allows you to better cope with failure and tap into one of its greatest benefits: the opportunity to learn. Failure is one of our greatest teachers. When you make a mistake, you’re forced to look back and find out what went wrong before you can go back to the drawing board. In contrast, when you succeed, you don’t always know exactly what you did right that led to your success.
3 | Learning from Failure
The next question, then, is how do we learn from our failures and use them to our advantage? A great place to start is by applying the FDSI cycle. This stands for failure, diagnosis, solution, and implementation.
The first step is to identify the failure. “I did poorly on my exam” for example. Next, you need to diagnose the problem. Why did you do poorly on your exam? Was there a certain topic you didn’t understand? Did you forget a piece of information? Were you unable to make associations between certain concepts? Identifying exactly where your deficiencies were is key for the next step, which is to formulate a solution based on your diagnosis.
Using the example of a poor exam grade, perhaps you’ve diagnosed the problem as incomplete memorization. The solution then might be to incorporate more active recall into your study schedule in the form of flashcards. Or maybe the issue was comprehension. In this case, the solution might be to utilize the Feynman technique or other similar techniques to improve your understanding of the material.
Once you have your solution, all that’s left is to implement it. Identifying the failure, diagnosing what went wrong, and coming up with a solution is all meaningless if you don’t implement your solution. Knowing what you need to do is not the same as actually doing it.
Once you’ve implemented your solution, you should continue to refine your processes through additional FDSI cycles.
By repeating this cycle of identifying the failure, diagnosing the problem, formulating a solution, and implementing it, you can use your failures to your advantage and learn to love the process.
If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out 7 Evidence-Based Study Strategies (& How to Use Each) or my piece on the Feynman Technique.