The Question

Is Dwelling on Failure the Secret of Success?

Think about the last time you came up short on something. No, don't try to explain what went wrong, or why it wasn't your fault — just think about the moment you failed, and how you felt when you realized you got it wrong. It's not a pleasant feeling, is it? And yet, exposure to that feeling might be the secret to staving off the next failure.


A Rigged Test

Everybody knows how it feels to fail. And nobody really wants to return to that feeling. But according to a new study from Ohio State University, lingering in that state of mind might be the key to avoiding it in the future.

The experiment worked like this. First, subjects were tasked with finding a blender online with a certain set of characteristics. If they could find the cheapest blender that had every feature the scientists were asking for, they'd win a cash prize. But it was all a set-up. No matter how cheap the subjects' blenders, the scientists always "found" another one costing $3.27 less.

Next, they were all asked to write a reflection on how they did (not knowing that every one of their cohorts failed as well). They didn't tend to write about things they could have done better. Instead, they tended towards defensive thoughts such as, "This wasn't my fault," and, "I couldn't have won even if I tried." You know, we can't help but agree with that assessment, though.

In the final step of the experiment, the subjects were asked to try one more task. Some were told they had to pick out a book for a friend, while others were told they had to find the best deal on textbooks. The first task doesn't have much to do with anything, but the second was designed to remind them of the deal-hunting task they had so recently failed. And apparently, the sting of that memory had an effect. The subjects who were looking for low-priced textbooks ended up spending an average of 25 percent more time on their task than the others.

Turning Losses Into Wins

What does all this show? According to the researchers, it demonstrates how it's important not just to dwell intellectually on what went wrong, but to return emotionally to the feeling of failure. In other words, all of the participants were given the chance to intellectualize their failures, but only those who were forced to relive it actually demonstrated a renewed commitment to not fail this time.

The fact that intellectualization is more likely to explain why any mistakes weren't our fault probably has something to do with that disparity. But perhaps there's also something to the idea of inoculating yourself against a fear of failure by facing it head-on.

The benefits of failure are well-documented: many scientific discoveries have been made only because an experiment "failed" — that is, didn't produce the expected results. And as psychology researcher Jon Jachimowicz notes in the Huffington Post, failure is a necessary step on the road to self-improvement, and letting a fear of failure stop you will only result in fewer successes.

So next time things don't go exactly how you planned them, try hanging on to that feeling for a while. It could make all the difference next time.

If you'd like to learn more about turning failure into a positive, check out "The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery" by Sarah Lewis. The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible.

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