Microdose #007: Embrace and Weaponize Failure
Zen and the Art of Lifting Heavy Weights (and other hard things).
BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front):
Some degree of failure is almost always required to achieve meaningful progress. The ability to persist in the face of failure is the hallmark of a high achiever. Yet, failure is often unpleasant, so most people struggle to adopt a mindset that embraces this facet of life. While there is nothing inherently noble in failure, the stigma surrounding it can choke out potential avenues for growth.
Build failure into your daily life to normalize this essential step toward personal and professional progress, harnessing your feelings of frustration to propel you forward. In The Plan, we’ll show you practical steps to build comfort around failure.
Excessive fear of failure (atychiphobia) can be crippling, as it prevents us from trying things that we assume will not go successfully. For many of us, while we intellectually understand that it’s natural to experience a learning curve as we undertake a new project, finding ourselves stymied by early missteps, either because we feel that they indicate something inherently deficient in us, or we simply feel embarrassed.
Fear of failure in a population even has a measurable impact on economic growth. The World Bank has a fear of failure rate index, indicating the percentage of the 18-64 year old population who perceive good opportunities to start a business but indicate that fear of failure would prevent them from doing so. In the United States, this index is markedly on the rise.
- Cognitive versus emotional responses to failure. People left to their own devices, reflecting on failure cognitively, will “explain away” the failure, whereas those with an emotional reaction (sadness at the failure), are more likely to move forward and improve. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/bdm.2042
- Failure may make you “feel” like you aren’t good at something, but it does not have an effect on your future performance of said task. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S146902921830027X#
- The SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands) asserts that the human body adjusts physically to the pressures it is put under. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SAID_principle
A failure-tolerant, growth-oriented mindset is a superpower. To adopt this point of view, you’ll need to get used to failure, take a structured approach to learning from it, and find ways to leverage the frustration of missteps productively. Here’s our plan:
Pick up a hobby that allows you to experiment with failure in a low stakes environment
The idea here is to choose something that you do not already possess a natural ability for. Look for something that will be uniquely difficult for you, where failure will be a constant part of the journey. If you tend to be uncoordinated, perhaps you could learn to juggle. If you’re nervous about public speaking, you could join an improv group. The key is to find something where failure is inevitable, but, outside of some embarrassing moments, not harmful.
Visualize the effects of failure
There may be no clearer example of the effects of failure, than weight lifting (which makes a fantastic hobby for the previous step). While the exact mechanics of muscle growth are still being studied, the general concept is that hypertrophy (growth of muscle size) is impacted by the amount of time the muscle is kept under tension, and is particularly triggered by working to failure, i.e. the point at which a weight can no longer be lifted. Failure literally becomes the goal, because it is understood that this is necessary for growth. Failure becomes synonymous with best effort.
There are two distinct types of failure: growing pains (failures necessary for growth) and setbacks (failures that derail progress). In the case of weight lifting, safely failing on a lift is a growing pain, whereas injuring yourself from bad form would be a setback.
- At the outset of a new project, take some time to visualize the potential ways in which you could fail. What are the setbacks? Can these be avoided or mitigated?
- Reframe growing pains as step-goals toward success, and praise the effort that went into them.
Weaponize the frustration of defeat
While “don’t get mad, get even” is a terrible piece of advice for our relationships, it may be fitting when it comes to failure. The research tells us that emotional reactions to failure are effective in spurring us to action.
- Getting used to failure doesn’t mean accepting it. Failure should offend you.
- Use the feelings of frustration and disappointment to light a fire inside you. Make a vow to yourself, not that you won’t fail again, but that no failure will ever defeat you.
- Can you take the insult of failure as a challenge to try harder, to be even more audacious next time?
Add a consideration of failures into your self-reflection and gratitude practices
In weight lifting, there is a window after training in which you need to take in sufficient amounts of protein in order for your muscles to grow. If you neglect this, the exercise will have limited results. Similarly, use the window of time after a failure to reflect, learn, and grow. Do not waste this opportunity.
Remember that failure is often subjective. Your concept of missing the mark, may look like someone else's idea of a rousing success. To help keep things in perspective, add some time to reflect on failures into your day to day life. Two great places for this are your end of day ritual or your gratitude practice.
- Can you find a way to feel grateful for the effort that you made, even if it failed?
- Express gratitude for the fact that you were able to make the attempt. Not everyone can.
Alex - My fear of failure has been crippling at times, preventing me from picking up new hobbies, pursuing certain sports, and even speaking out in professional settings. Overcoming failure has been one of the greatest challenges I’ve faced. Recontextualizing failure in my mind is an ongoing process that isn’t perfect, but, as I write this I’m planning a trip to Aspen where I plan to fail again and again to learn snowboarding, which I am very excited for.
Frank - Without sounding braggy, I’m pretty great at failure. I’ve had some truly spectacular gaffes in my life: failing to get my novel published, losing a 6 figure business to an unscrupulous lawyer, embarrassing myself in front of a packed house at 2009’s New York Comic Con, etc.. While I could look back on these, and many other examples, negatively, I view my willingness to try things and my comfort around failure as a bit of a superpower. I also acknowledge that this is a privilege I enjoy. Not everyone is in a position to take big risks, but I firmly believe that we can all try to become more brave in the face of failure