Today, the Lifehacks post had ten things to do to learn more quickly. While all are good, the one that I like the most is to “view failure as feedback.”
People hate to fail. In fact, they will often get in heated arguments to prove that they didn’t actually fail. They were only prevented from succeeding by (pick one or more) their teachers, families, bosses, colleagues, the Man, society, or Fate. In fact, I’ve witnessed people (who may or may not be me) work three times harder to deny a failure than they would ever have to do to learn from it and improve themselves.
At this point, we should know that it’s okay to fail on the path to a goal. After all, self-help books point this out all the time as do successful people who are interviewed about how they made it big. It’s impossible to watch any sporting event without some inspiring tale of a team or player who managed to turn from failure to success. So why do so many of us still resist, kicking and screaming, the idea of failure?
Maybe because we confuse temporary failures with permanent ones. Maybe because there is still a belief among many that if you’re really talented, then it should all come easy. Maybe because failing at something feels pretty rotten.
So let’s state this one more time for emphasis: If you are alive, you’re going to fail at something. So stop looking at failure as the most horrible thing that can happen to you and instead as a type of feedback to make things better.
For example, let’s say that your professor just returned your research paper. There are red marks all over it, and on the last page, there is a giant F. (Now most of you probably have your papers returned electronically through your course shells these days, but you get the picture.) You now have some choices:
Choice A: You angrily stuff your paper into your textbook and stalk out of the classroom. You tell your classmates, your significant other, your parents, your colleagues, and your cat that your instructor has always had it out for you. You’re going to drop the course and get a professor who’s not quite so blind to your obvious talents next semester.
Choice B: You stare at the F and think, “Well, that’s finally out in the open. I am a total loser. I should immediately drop this course, drop out of school, and perhaps join the Foreign Legion where no one speaks English and can realize what a failure I am.”
Choice C: You look at the grade and think, “Well, this is certainly unpleasant.” Then you look over your instructor’s comments. And you realize that you have to agree with some of them: You weren’t clear on how to cite those online sources. You were in such a rush that you probably did copy that source word-for-word. And you did let Spell Check do all your proofreading, so there are some pretty egregious errors. You decide to set up an appointment with your professor to talk about how you can improve for the next assignment.
So what are the results of these choices?
Choice A: You have annoyed everyone you’ve seen that day (especially your cat) with your self pity, but you will have gotten enough sympathetic nods to feel justified in your anger. So you drop the course, and start again next semester at the very same place you are now and likely moving to the same conclusion.
Choice B: Finding that the Foreign Legion is harder to join than you imagined, you stay in the course, but because you have now convinced yourself that you are a failure, you think there’s no use in trying. And your grade continues to drop.
Choice C: You are not happy about this grade, but you realize you made some bad choices in managing your time and resources in writing the paper. You look over the comments and decide what actions you need to take to improve your grade. You talk to your instructor or see a tutor about things you can’t fix on your own. And you make sure you avoid these mistakes in the future. The result is that your writing does improve.
Sometimes a failure is simply a message that what we’re doing isn’t working, so it’s time to try a new method. It may be telling us that we are pursuing the wrong goal and need to make a correction. Or maybe we just took on too much too fast, and we need to slow down.
All of these messages are helpful to us, but we can’t hear them if we’re busy denying or internalizing our failures.