Failure – The Smart Way To Learn From Failure

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We all make mistakes repeatedly, but new perspectives can help us learn important lessons from our mistakes. Today’s motivational literature frequently presents failure as a positive trait.
The road to success must pass through disappointments; they mark a turning point in our lives that will ultimately lead to victory. We are exhorted to “fail forward” as opposed to giving up.

If only things were that easy.

Numerous psychological studies over the past ten years have revealed that most people find it difficult to respond positively to failure. Instead, we attempt to minimize the value of the endeavour we failed at, which could make us less inclined to persist and complete our mission.

The “sour-grape effect” is the name given to this phenomenon.

Alternatively, we might be unaware of our mistakes and carry on as usual, which prevents us from understanding a better method to enhance our performance in the future.

Inspirational speakers like to use these words from author Samuel Beckett: “Again fail. Better to fail “. But the reality is that most of us repeatedly make the same mistakes.

According to recent research, these pitfalls can be avoided. These solutions are frequently counterintuitive: giving advice to someone else who might be going through a similar situation is one of the best ways to learn from your mistakes, for instance. It turns out that by helping others succeed, you can also improve your own chances of success.

The ‘sour-grape effect’

Let’s first look at the sour-grape effect, which Hallgeir Sjstad and colleagues discovered. Sjstad is a professor of psychology and leadership at the Norwegian School of Economics.

He claims that the propensity for people to give up on their dreams too soon intrigued him. “The study was an attempt to understand why we sometimes give up too early, even though we could have succeeded if we had been a little more persistent and willing to give it another go,” he says.

Sjstad asked participants to practice a test that was supposed to gauge how accurate their intuition was in his first experiment. For example, they were asked to estimate the weight of 20 apples and were told that a guess within 10% of the actual result was a sign of strong intuition.

They were told that high performance on a number of questions was strongly correlated with “positive outcomes in life, such as extraordinary achievements in work and a well-functioning social life,” which was intended to increase their motivation to succeed.

The participants received fictitious, either extremely positive or negative feedback after a few practice questions. They were then asked to predict how challenging it would be to do well on the test and how pleased they would be to receive a perfect score.

Sjstad postulated that those who received constructive criticism for their practice answers would undervalue their future performance’s impact on their emotional state.

And indeed, this is what took place.

People who felt they had failed on the practice run predicted that getting a perfect score would not make them happier immediately.

Importantly, this did not turn out to be the case; instead, they were genuinely pleased to learn they had scored highly on a second test. They had mistakenly assumed that the outcome would not fill them with pride.

This, according to Sjstad, is self-defence. “Most of us want to believe that we are competent and capable individuals, so it poses a serious threat to that self-image when external feedback suggests otherwise,” he claims.

“To reduce the inconsistency and maintain a positive sense of self, the simplest solution is to deny or explain away the external signal.

Without even realizing it, I believe we do this constantly.” (It’s important to note that Sjstad briefed his participants after each experiment so they wouldn’t leave an inaccurate impression of their intuitive abilities.)

Because of the “sour-grape effect,” we tend to minimize the value of the task we struggled with, making us less inclined to persist and accomplish our objectives.

Sjstad then investigated how test-takers assessments of the significance of the test results to their lives were affected by their performance on the practice questions.

Once more, he observed blatant indications of resentment. After receiving the bad news, participants were much less likely to claim that the test results accurately reflected “who [they] were, as a person” or that their intuitive intelligence would determine their future success.

He has also tested the sour-grape effect on actual university students in Norway. He discovered that simply bringing up a student’s low-grade point average caused them to significantly underestimate the advantages of graduating with an A average.

The sour-grape effect may affect motivation in various spheres of life, according to Sjstad. If you have one unsuccessful interview for your dream job, you might come to the conclusion that you don’t really want to work in that industry after all, and you stop applying for jobs in that industry.

The same is true if you don’t do well in a sports trial or if a publisher rejects your first manuscript submission.

“It might be tempting to explain away our shortcomings and blame someone or something else, trying to convince ourselves that our ‘Plan C’ was actually our ‘Plan A’ all along,” he says.

Sjåstad isn’t claiming that we should always persevere in all our goals; it can be healthy to put ambitions in perspective and change course if the process is no longer making us happy.

But the sour-grape effect may lead us to make this decision prematurely, he says, rather than seeing whether we might learn and improve.

The ‘ostrich effect’

Devaluing the cause of your disappointment is just one way your mind may try to avoid healthily dealing with failure; another coping strategy is to bury your head in the sand and avoid thinking about the upsetting situation.

Researchers have long recognized that we frequently ignore bad news that comes in. For instance, economists have discovered that when investors’ fortunes are declining rather than rising, they are less likely to check their financial situation.

According to a series of recent studies by Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University in the US, and Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioural science and marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, this phenomenon, known as the “ostrich effect,” may be an example of a much more general tendency to overlook negative information.

The satisfaction of helping another person provides a personal ego boost, so that people feel more confident to confront their own failures

The “Facing Failure game,” an experimental setup where participants were given a series of either-or questions, has been the focus of much of their research. They were asked to identify an animal, for instance, from a pair of hieroglyphic symbols that were presented to them.

They were informed of their accuracy after providing their responses. There were only two options, so any feedback—positive or negative—should have assisted them in learning the right response so they could perform better on the next test.

They would be paid $1.50 for each symbol they remembered in the following round, which was a small financial inducement to do so.

Most people were able to recall their accurate responses.

Surprisingly, however, they failed to learn from incorrect responses and performed at best randomly on these questions. In many cases, people didn’t learn anything, claims Fishbach.

The researchers asked an additional group of participants to view another participant’s responses to a round of the Facing Failure game in order to understand the causes of this phenomenon better.

In these situations, the “observers” appeared perfectly capable of deducing the right answers from the other player’s incorrect ones and later remembering them. This implies that the cognitive demands of the task are not as great, claims Fishbach.

Instead, it appears that the obstacle to learning for those who were actually playing the game was the hurt feelings of being incorrect themselves. Participants who gave the incorrect answer let their attention wander rather than correcting their error, failing to recall the right response.

Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach have now implemented the Facing Failure game in a variety of contexts, including telemarketer groups who had the opportunity to learn useful information about their line of work. The participants, in every instance, were perfectly capable of recalling their victories but barely remembered their failures.

Although Fishbach talks about these findings humorously, she views them as a serious challenge to our personal development. She admits, “I laugh because I’ve been doing this research for a while, but it’s actually pretty depressing.

To avoid dealing with an upsetting situation, the “ostrich effect” coping strategy involves burying your head in the sand.

Failing constructively 

Thankfully, Fishbach’s research with Eskreis-Winkler indicates that there are some methods for getting past emotional obstacles in the face of failure.

The first is a technique known as “self-distancing,” in which you take a third-person vantage point. Rather than pondering “Why did I fail?” I could inquire, “Why did David fail?” for instance.

Ethan Kross, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, has conducted numerous studies demonstrating how self-distancing can help us view upsetting events more objectively by reducing our negative emotional reactions.

In this instance, it should imply that the ego is less threatened by failure, allowing us to analyze the causes of the disappointment with greater objectivity and without defensively burying our heads in the sand.

Giving advice to people in a similar situation is a second tactic that Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach tested with University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth.

They discovered that feeling good about helping someone else boosts one’s self-esteem, giving one more courage to face one’s own shortcomings.

According to Fishbach, it forces people to reflect on their experiences and lessons learned.

For instance, those who had trouble losing weight wrote advice for others trying to follow a diet based on their own failures. After that, they were more inspired to keep working toward their own weight goal.

In contrast, middle-school students who were asked to offer advice to a younger student about how to overcome a lack of academic motivation overcame their own procrastination and completed significantly more homework over the course of the following four weeks than students who received the letter.

Failures are an inevitable part of life, as Sjstad points out. He claims that if you never fail, your goals are probably too modest.

Additionally, you might find that the path to success is a little bit simpler to travel if you can learn to face disappointment and draw lessons from it.

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