• Jackie Luo

To Grow, We Must Fundamentally Change our Attitude About Failure

Updated: Aug 1, 2020

July 6, 2020

Successful people, whether in business, sports, or politics, always emphasize how much they learned from failure when sharing their success stories.

·        From Elon Musk: “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”

·        From Michael Jordan: “I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life.”

·        From Barack Obama: “The real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won't. It's whether you let it harden or shame you into inaction, or whether you learn from it; whether you choose to persevere.”

But many of us still prefer to stay within our “comfort zone”. We are afraid of trying a new job or pushing the boundaries in our existing one. Why? 

Because the fear of failure is deeply ingrained within our mindset.

It was instilled upon us by our upbringing, culture, and life experiences. We were led to associate failure with shame and a lack of capability, both detrimental to our development. Therefore, we intuitively try to avoid the pain by not risking failure. 

Failure is all around us. Have you ever been to a high school soccer or baseball game? Sometimes, after a team loses, you overhear some parents berating their children for this outcome. If a child is constantly shamed for failing to achieve an expected outcome, whether it’s a game or a math class, what will happen? Instead of focusing on learning difficult things or playing to their best, they will focus on not screwing up the outcome.

They will grow attached to the outcome, and let it dictate their process.

They will play safe, managing downside risks but giving up upside potential.

We often judge a person’s intelligence by the outcome. If a student gets an A, we often praise them for being smart, which makes a B student feel that they are not as smart or lack certain capabilities.  In reality, getting an A may not correlate with being smart at all. It depends on a variety of factors such as the difficulty of the class, the teacher’s subjective grading, and how hard the student has worked to turn in all assignments. Since failure to achieve a certain grade is somehow associated with a lack of capabilities, it makes a student less inclined to choose a more challenging class. They would play safe, but learn less.

As long as we associate failure with negative emotions, we won’t push our comfort zone to try new things.  The comfort zone will make you feel cozy, but nothing worthy will grow from it. 

Changing our mindset about failure is not easy. It won’t happen overnight. It takes consistent work, and constant practice. There are many resources out there and you can discover and explore on your own.

For me, I have found these authors and speakers very helpful:

1.      On how to change your mindset, the book “Mindset” from Carol Dweck is a great read. She is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and this book will change your thinking forever. 

2.      On recognizing how the “shame” culture has shaped many people’s mindset, Brene Brown is a great author to explore. My favorite is “Daring Greatly”. 

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