I am sure all of us have heard the phrase, “failure is the best teacher”, at some point in our lives. The premise for this deduction is that failure motivates us to do better, to try harder. It pushes us to get out of our comfort zone and try something different. Success, on the other hand, makes one complacent. While I am not denying that in some cases failure does help us to make better choices in the future, I don’t think that it’s always the case. I feel that there’s more to how the human brain reacts to success and failure.
From what I understand, failures can be classified as –
- Unknown Failure
- Expected Failure
- Unexpected Failure
If I eat peanuts and discover that my body is allergic to peanuts, then this would be an unknown failure. In this case, I will definitely learn from the failure and would keep my distance from peanuts. Expected failures are where you know you are setting yourself up for failure. When you don’t study for a test at all and expect to get a perfect score or message a celebrity randomly on Instagram and ask them out for coffee. These are situations where it’s highly unlikely that you would get your desired result and so are prepared to lose. Here also you can learn from your mistakes and your failure can teach you to try harder or experiment with a new approach next time. You should study harder for the next test or maybe look for better ways to connect with the celebrity before expecting a coffee date.
But I feel that our brain’s response to unexpected failure is entirely different. Quite literally unexpected failure is when you meet with failure when you don’t expect it. It is when I know I have given my best to a task but still don’t get the desired results. It is difficult at this time to see failure as a motivating factor because I can’t find a logical explanation as to why even after giving my best, the pieces didn’t fall into place.
Imagine you are on the lookout for a job. You have prepared well and you are confident to do well. You have the first interview but don’t get a positive response. You are still confident to nail the second interview. Somewhere after three unsuccessful attempts, you probably start getting demotivated. Every unsuccessful attempt after that further discourages you and you start doubting yourself. And you wonder why aren’t you motivated to try harder or at least keep going, after your failures?
More often than not, unexpected failures induce self-doubt, even if momentarily. On the other, if my efforts succeed in getting me what I want I not only feel happy but also confident to work on the next thing because I have reason to believe that my efforts will pay. This is also in accordance with the incentive theory of motivation which suggests that behavior is motivated by a desire for reinforcement or incentives.
The goal in the large scheme of things is to attain stoicism and remain impervious to these things but till that happens it’s worthwhile to find some ways to minimize the effect of unexpected failures. One technique that works for me is to make a list of factors that I can control vs the factors I cannot control for a task and prepare my mind for the worst-case scenario.
I am not saying that in the event of a failure I don’t feel bad at all. But this helps me realize that the outcome depends on a lot of external factors which I cannot control and prevents me from doubting my abilities and actions.