Understanding failure: Why we hate it, and why it might actually be good for us

I’m delighted to admit that I’ve failed at more challenges than anyone I know. — Scott Adams

Few of us could admit to failing more than anyone we know. In fact, most of us have trouble admitting to any failure.

We try our best to succeed in everything we do, and we struggle to admit when we make mistakes. But it may be that we’re going about this all wrong. Being willing to fail—and admit to it—might actually be the best path to success.

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Why humans hate failure

If you think you’re alone in hating failure, fear not—most humans do.

There’s nothing particularly fun about failing. Especially once you’re an adult and you’re expected to not fail.

Kids, on the other hand, are encouraged to fail—how else can you learn to stand up, walk, and talk, if you don’t make thousands of embarrassing mistakes along the way?

But as adults we avoid failure and loathe it. Failing doesn’t just make us upset—it can make us more selfish, too. We’re less likely to offer our time or money to help others after failing, whereas the positive feelings of success encourage us to be more generous.

We also have trouble admitting to our failures and learning from them. While most of us like to take credit for our successes, attributing them to our own hard work or skills, research shows we tend to blame failures on external factors outside our control, like bad luck.

In her book Being Wrong, author Kathryn Schulz says “the sentence ‘I am wrong’ describes a logical impossibility. As soon as we know that we are wrong, we aren’t wrong anymore, since to recognize a belief as false is to stop believing it.”

So we can recognize that we were wrong in the past, then, but we can’t know that we’re wrong in the moment.

Schulz also points out that most of us live in denial that we’ll ever fail:

As with dying, we recognize erring as something that happens to everyone, without feeling that it is either plausible or desirable that it will happen to us.

So we hate the feeling of failure, we struggle to believe it will happen to us, and we can’t even admit to our failures when they happen. It would seem failure is bad news, every way you look at it.

But the truth might be surprising. It’s possible that failure is actually a good thing—so good, in fact, that it’s required for success.

Failure may predict success

“If I find a cow turd on my front steps, I’m not satisfied knowing that I’ll be mentally prepared to find some future cow turd. I want to shovel that turd onto my garden and hope the cow returns every week so I never have to buy fertilizer again. Failure is a resource that can be managed.” – Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert

Few of us relish failure like Scott Adams does. The creator of successful comic strip Dilbert believes failure is a necessary stepping stone on the way to success. And he might be right.

When Charles Bosk, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, interviewed young doctors to determine what the difference was between those who were successful and those who’d been fired or had resigned, he was surprised by what he found.

It wasn’t technical prowess or even intelligence that made the biggest difference. It was their attitude toward failure that determined how likely they were to succeed. Bosk says the interviews left him shaking.

“I would hear these horrible stories about what they did wrong,” he says, “but the thing was that they didn’t know that what they did was wrong.”

The difference between successful and unsuccessful doctors, says Bosk, came down to their answers to a couple of simple questions: “Have you ever made a mistake? And, if so, what was your worst mistake?”

Those who couldn’t think of any mistakes they’d made, or believed all their mistakes were out of their control, were “invariably… the worst candidates.”

And the residents who said, ‘I make mistakes all the time. There was this horrible thing that happened just yesterday and here’s what it was.’ They were the best. They had the ability to rethink everything that they’d done and imagine how they might have done it differently.

Where the unsuccessful doctors felt a false sense of confidence in their abilities, those who ended up succeeding did so because they not only made mistakes—they recognized those mistakes. And they used those mistakes to identify their weaknesses and improve their skills.

Without failure, the unsuccessful doctors didn’t believe they had room to improve, and so didn’t try to do so. They ended up being fired or leaving their jobs because they struggled to succeed as doctors.

The universe has plenty of luck to go around; you just need to keep your hand raised until it’s your turn. It helps to see failure as a road and not a wall. — Scott Adams

While few people—Scott Adams excepted—enjoy failure, it’s inevitable for all of us. Even the most successful people in the world had to face failure in order to do their best work:

F. Scott Fitzgerald collected 122 rejection slips before he got his footing as a short story writer. Vogue editor Anna Wintour was fired from a junior position at Harper’s Bazaar because a senior editor thought her photo shoots were too edgy. Oprah Winfrey, Howard Stern, Walt Disney, J.K. Rowling, and many others had bosses tell them they were bad fits in their chosen field or lacked creativity.

But just because we don’t like failing doesn’t mean we should avoid it. In fact, it may just be what we need to achieve our goals. Embracing failure sounds bizarre, but, ironically, those who do are more likely to succeed.

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Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.