Failure is important because it helps you realize something is wrong with the way you are approaching the world. It is nature’s form of critical feedback. Mistakes teach your brain that it is time to adapt or change, if it wants to survive.
The brain forms various maps of the world that it uses to interact. For example, when a person reaches out to pick up a pencil, they are using one of these maps. These representations work with other parts of the body to help us do things. When a map is used successfully, the brain chemically reinforces this map.
But when the map doesn’t work, like when you miss the pencil you are trying to grab, other chemicals are released. These chemicals trigger neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity means the brain is open to adaptation. This is a fancy way of saying failure triggers chemicals that make the brain learn, fast.
So how do we tap into these mechanisms so we can learn faster? Chasing situations that will trigger the feeling of failure or surprise are key. But we can pair these situations with certain behaviors to help us learn faster.
First you need to react to the feeling of frustration in a specific way. When people feel frustration after failure, they often quit or walk away from the task. Instead, you need to see frustration as an invitation to dive back into the task. When you confront the frustration and then dive back into the task, this reinforces the chemicals that make the brain learn.
Incremental Learning Cycles
Second you need to use incremental learning. Incremental learning means breaking down learning into smaller bouts of practice. Instead of cramming all day long, practice a few minutes each day over many days. This practice should be focused on developing a very specific skill set or task.
These intense learning cycles seem to be between 7 and 30 minutes long, and can only occur a few times a day, and are specifically focused on making errors. There are natural times through out the day where you can commonly get into these states. For most people this happens in the morning and night, and not as much in the afternoon.
The Importance of Incentives
Third you need to focus on tasks or concepts that you feel are important. When you have a strong incentive to learn something, the brain more easily releases learning chemicals. In fact when the adult brain believes something is important, it can learn and change just as thoroughly and quickly as child brains. Strong incentives include restricted food, the presence of high levels of curiosity, or potential embarrassment.
Use Movement and Breath
Finally, you can rely on physical movements as an easy way to quickly trigger the brain’s learning state. First, learning requires a certain mental state. You can’t be too anxious, or too sleepy. If you are too anxious or alert, try doing the double inhale, exhale. Repeat this about 5 to 10 times. If you are too sleepy, try inhaling more than exhaling. If done for a few sustained seconds, this wakes you up.
Next, use the balance system. If you do certain unusual movements that rely on balance, your brain gets kicked into the learning state. For example, if you’ve never surfed before, your brain will be in a high learning state right after trying to balance on a surf board. If you’ve never done yoga, the same thing will happen. The key is to find new or novel balance based movements to try.
A Note on Surprise
An important note is that surprise can also trigger similar effects as failure. So you can connect these behaviors to surprise as well as failure, and get a similar learning state.
People often look upon failure as a negative. Scientists think this decision is linked to personality traits like neuroticism. Those who are more pessimistic often take an identity focused approach to evaluating the world. When an action they took leads to a result, they evaluate that result through the frame of their identity. They ask, “what does this result say about who I am?” Success means I am worthwhile. Failure means I am worthless. While this perspective on the results of actions contains truth, it doesn’t have to be the way you look at failure.
In contrast to the identity focused approach to evaluating the results of your actions, stands a growth approach. Instead of framing results as statements about your identity, results are reinterpreted as statements about how much more work you have to do to reach a goal. The identity part is stripped out.
Seeing failure as feedback on how you can improve will help you better improve in the long run. So what are some examples of reframing failure?
Examples Of Failures in Life, and How to React
Failure in family life. You could fail to have a good relationship with your child, sibling, or parent. Reframe this by seeing this failure as information. If you just got into an argument with them because they don’t feel you are interested in their life, see that as data telling you that you need to find something about them that interests you.
- Poor relationships.
- Waning trust.
- Boredom or lack of interest in the person.
- Frequent arguments.
- Lack of support.
Failure in school. You might fail at a test by getting a worse grade than you expected or failing to pass a class. Reframe this as an invitation to reevaluate. Do you really want to spend time in that class? Is the topic of study not useful to you? How can you make that topic seem important or relevant to your life?
- A bad score on a test or in a class.
- Not understanding a topic.
- Embarrassment when demonstrating a skill or task.
Failure in the professional workplace. When you fail at work it can have large repercussions. Don’t take the mistake personally. Instead, use it as a measurement of how much you have to improve before you get the next promotion or advancement.
- Not closing a client.
- Losing a job or being unemployed.
- Losing a client.
- Making a mistake that causes others to have problems.
- Creating inefficiencies.
Failure in personal life. When you fail in personal life, consider asking yourself you really value that thing. Did you not stand up for yourself? Did you not complete the work you wanted to do?
- Not accomplishing one’s goals.
- Not having goals you are interested in or care about.
- Shame at behavior.
- Dissatisfaction over your current state of life.
How to Use Failure to be a Better Learner
1 . Arrive at the optimal arousal state, at the optimal time of day. Try the breathing tricks listed above if you are too tired or too anxious.
2. Have a strong reason for engaging in the activity. Ask yourself if you are really interested in learning this information.
3. Use balance to trigger a higher learning state. Try doing new balance based movements you haven’t done recently.
4. Reframe failure in your brain. Instead of looking at failure as a statement about your self worth or value, look at failure as a way for the brain to quickly improve. Look at failure as information about where you can improve.
5. Focus on actions that release the feeling of failure or surprise. This means performing tasks that create errors. Try predicting what you are about to read, or performing tasks that are difficult to get right.