The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

On the Benefits of Failure

Failure is nothing to be ashamed of!

We live in a competitive society that has big winners and big losers. Educators, motivation experts, life coaches, sport psychologists and other mentors mainly teach us how to approach success, how to be winners. Few teach us a much more valuable lesson – how to cope with failure.

A society that worships winners tends to make horrible choices, whether considered from a moral, or a practical, perspective. Consider the widespread practice of preferring job applicants with a near-perfect grade point average over those with more varied scores.

The conventional view is that someone with a near-perfect GPA will become a near-perfect employee. Yet, there is a glaring flaw in this reasoning. A straight-A student is not a perfect person but someone who has never done badly in a course. This means that they have never really been tested. If they have not been tested to the extent of receiving at least some weak grades, then they missed out on learning to cope with failure.

An untested employee is like an untried soldier, liable to break down under fire from real-world difficulties and challenges. Even if they do not fall apart emotionally, they tend to be rigid, narcissistic, and uncreative.

Although it might seem perverse to claim that prior failure is an advantage in a job candidate, contrary to the received wisdom of personnel recruiters, experiencing failure is actually the best qualification for any difficult occupation. Of course, the context matters and we are discussing situations where the goal had been potentially achievable and not some inflated pipe dream. Also excluded are purely personal failures such as alcoholism or criminal activities.

On a first impression, the young Theodore Roosevelt was described as a “second-rate intellect, first-rate temperament.” Roosevelt survived a long litany of failures in his life from crashing out of politics to watching his cattle herd die.

Of course Roosevelt’s failures are balanced by a staggering list of accomplishments from founding the environmental movement, working for world peace, tackling poverty in America, and busting monopolies. Not bad for a Republican one-term president.

So what are the advantages of experiencing failure?

The benefits of failure

People who fail repeatedly develop persistence in the face of difficulties. President Harry Truman was perceived as a flop during his own life but stuck to his guns when it really mattered, such as firing the popular, but insubordinate, General MacArthur. Thomas Edison is remembered for the incandescent light bulb among many other key inventions in the Age of Electricity. He is said to have failed with a thousand different filaments before hitting on a material that worked.

Only people with extensive histories of failure could survive the difficulties that these individuals endured. Such dogged persistence is not a universal trait, of course. If it were, everyone would have a Ph. D.

With success, people keep on doing the same thing. When they fail, they are forced to adapt and change. That is not just a human characteristic but constitutes a basic feature of how the mammalian brain works.

If a lab rat no longer gets rewarded for pressing a lever that had yielded food pellets before, it gets visibly upset. As its frantic efforts fail, it resorts to all manner of strange, or novel, reactions from grooming itself to biting the lever, or leaping into the air. It is learning that the world has changed and its brain is getting rewired, so to speak.

When one combines emotionalism with originality, that is fairly close to what most people think of as artistic creativity. Artists are not necessarily frustrated people but tend to be dissatisfied with what they have accomplished previously and try to do something better, or something new.

The magical power of failure is not restricted to the arts, or to political leadership. It applies to all fields of human endeavor, including the crass activity of financial money grubbing. Anyone who bought Apple stock over most of the past decade made wads of money but learned nothing. Those who bought at the peak and lost 40 percent of their stake are still scratching their heads. Like the rat in the experiment, they are learning something.

Never underestimate the magical properties of failure. It rewires the brain and gets the creative juices flowing.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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