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 shopping online for a kitchen blender 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. Before they found out how they did, half of the participants were told to write about their emotional response to their win or loss, while the other half was told to write about their thoughts. But it was all a set-up. No matter how cheap the subjects' blenders, the scientists always "found" another one costing $3.27 less. Everybody loses!

In the final step of the experiment, the subjects were asked to try one more task. To remind them of the deal-hunting task they had so recently failed, half of the subjects were tasked with finding the best deal on textbooks (as a control, the other half faced the unrelated task of picking out a book for a friend). Apparently, the sting of an emotional memory had an effect. The subjects who focused on their emotions after their previous failure ended up spending 25 percent more time on average looking for low-priced textbooks than those who only reflected on their thoughts.

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 reflect on their failures, but only those who were forced to really feel their feelings actually demonstrated a renewed commitment to not fail this time.

Dwelling only on their thoughts is more likely to make people rationalize why mistakes weren't their fault, and that 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 the way you planned, 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. Affiliate links help support Curiosity!

Learning from Failure

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Written by Reuben Westmaas September 21, 2017