Learning to Fail Well
The idea that success can only be achieved by overcoming failure over and over again is a theme that’s readily shared by many of the highest-performing human beings from any field and any time period throughout history. But for most of the us, simply having a knowledge of the importance of failure doesn’t do much to actually ease the difficulty that we have with handling it.
For most people, handling and overcoming failure is incredibly difficult. The sting of failure can keep us from getting back on the horse and making another attempt. For others, simply the fear of failure is enough to keep us from even attempting something in the first place. The end result of having a hard time with failure is almost always a blunting of our progress and, ultimately, us not becoming the best that we can be.
Since almost everyone has some sort of hang-up regarding failure, yet we know that it’s the only path to success, it seems worth figuring out. Not only do we need to overcome the fear of failure and conquer our egos enough to blunt the sting of it, but we also need to learn to learn from failure. Failure must become our teacher. We have to figure out how to embrace it, respect it, and treat it as a valuable tool instead of the ultimate negative outcome.
On paper it all sounds good, maybe it even seems easy, but how do we really apply these ideas to our everyday practices? How do we get over years and years of failing at failing? How do we remove the fear-inspired anxiety of trying something new? Here are a few ways that we can change our mindset and approach to our daily practices so that we can embrace failure, and use it as a tool instead of a barrier.
Failure is a Part of the Game
The first step towards a healthier relationship with failure is to accept that it’s inevitable, particularly as we learn new skills. The whole process of learning demands that we fail. It’s how our bodies and minds gather data about what’s required to succeed at any given task. By simply understanding this, and routinely reminding ourselves of it, we can begin to quiet the ego and ease some of the fear of failure.
Along the same line, we need to change our views when it comes to “being perfect.” Perfection is simply an idea, it’s something to shoot for, it’s not something to expect, especially when learning new skills. If we can go into an activity knowing that we’re going to fail at some point, then the thought of perfection, and the pressure that it puts on us, can be removed from our minds. And although it sounds counter-intuitive, by removing the pressure of being perfect, many times we can put more focus on task-completion and we actually end up doing better.
To put this into practice, it’s helpful to remind ourselves before any practice or learning session (or even at the start of each day), “I will fail at some point during this, it’s part of the process of getting better. I will learn from my failures and they will help me to get better and to succeed.” While most people wouldn’t tell you to do an affirmation of failure, when we’re in the learning phase especially, it can be incredibly beneficial to acknowledge it as an inevitability.
But shouldn’t we have positive imagery and thoughts about succeeding? In competition, this is absolutely true. Our minds should be 100% committed to success, and thoughts of failure shouldn’t be allowed to creep in at all (or when they do, and they will, we have to be able to block them out). But the only way that we can confidently get to that point is by learning from repeated failures in practice.
A Chance to Gather Valuable Data
As we mentioned above, failing is necessary for our bodies and minds to gather the data that we need to make changes and improvements. A lot of this happens subconsciously as our nervous system takes in sensorial information and processes it. It uses the information to determine what went wrong, and in the future, what neurons need to fire, and in what order, to improve our chances of successfully completing the task. Each time we fail, we give ourselves more useful data to process.
In our conscious minds, we should constantly be assessing our attempts and determining what went wrong and how to fix it. Our focus should be on learning from the failed attempt, and not on the negative feelings that we assign to the failure.
Along the same line, it can be valuable to watch others try to perform the same task, and watch them fail. Even in this process, our minds and nervous systems are gathering information and beginning to make slight tweaks in our neural patterning so that, when we attempt the same skill, we have a better chance of not repeating their previous mistakes.
Because of this principle of learning, it’s very valuable to fail in front of, and with others. And yes this does oftentimes turn the ego on and increase the negative feelings of failure, but if we can get over that, it’s also the best way to learn.
And while we’re specifically talking about learning from failure, we also learn a lot from consciously assessing success at any given task. We should watch ourselves and others succeed, and fail, to give our bodies and minds the most data, and the best chance of figuring it out.
Get Back on the Horse as Soon as Possible
The biggest issue that we have with failure is that our ego is hurt by it. Yes, we certainly can be hurt physically as well, but damage to our mental construct of who we are, and how we should be, is by far the biggest creator of fear. The sting of failure can create feelings of embarrassment, shame, guilt, anger, self-doubt, and just about every other negative emotion possible. If we take the time following a failed attempt to give those thoughts and feelings energy, they can consume us. The end result is oftentimes anxiety and an intense fear of trying that task again.
The best way to stop this process from happening is to jump right back into it and give it another attempt as quickly as possible. Whether it’s wiping out on a surfboard and immediately paddling back out, or missing an attempt at a complex gymnastics movement and stepping back up to try it again, the best people at anything are always the ones who can immediately shift their focus to the next attempt and away from the failure itself.
Now, we have to make sure that physically and mentally we’re ready to attempt the task again, we don’t want to hurt ourselves or not be prepared to give the next attempt our best effort. But the faster that we can get back to trying it again, the less chance that our brains have of giving energy to the ego and creating a negative association with that task.
And even if we need some time to prepare ourselves physically for the next attempt, we can mentally get back on the horse immediately. We can determine what we learned from the last attempt, what tweaks need to be made, and then get ready to try again. We can even immediately begin visualizing doing the task again and this time doing it better.
Getting Started With Failing Better
For some people it’s still too scary to get up and try something new. Or, for years we’ve let the ego rule our relationship to failure, and we’re in a place where anxiety and fear are very strongly attached to it. We have a difficult time jumping right into a new task and attempting it. In these cases, we can break tasks down into steps and practice each step by itself.
We can learn to fail small before failing big. As we become more comfortable with doing a new task, and with the failure that comes along with attempting it, we can slowly begin to become more daring with our attempts, stringing more and more parts together, until the point where we’re trying the full task.
Another good way to get started with failure is to simply imagine failing at something. This technique is increasingly being used by athletes at the highest levels, and for good reason. The idea is to feel all of those negative emotions, feelings, and thoughts, and to come to terms with them. Visualize the worst-case scenario unfolding, and make it as vivid as possible. By doing so, we have in a way already experienced the failure, so there’s no reason to not give it a try in real life. Rarely is our real failure anywhere close to as bad as what our mind creates as a the worst possible outcome of it.
Learning to fail well is truly one of the most important, and most difficult, aspects of becoming a master at anything. It is the path that we must embark on if we hope to achieve success, and the quicker that we can create a positive relationship with it, the better off we’ll be. It’s also important to understand that learning to fail well is just like learning any other skill; we’re going to inevitably fail at it as well. We can’t get discouraged if we aren’t immediately good at failing; consciously practicing it will get us to where we need to be. To recap, here are the four main ways to develop a better relationship with failure:
Accept that failure is a necessary part of the game.
Focus on the valuable data that failure provides and not on the negative feelings associated with it.
Get back on the horse as soon as possible after a failure.
Fail small before failing big, even if that means simply visualizing failure.
Hopefully this information is useful to you and can be applied directly to your mental game. And If I’ve failed in presenting these ideas in the best way possible, please let me know, I’ll use that information to do better next time! 😉
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