This Is What Happens to Your Brain When You Fail
...and how to fix it.
Posted May 25, 2017
Four months after graduating college among the top of my class, I failed. I moved to Vancouver to be with my boyfriend and travel somewhere. I tried to be Lululemon’s Senior Director of Marketing, but somehow that didn’t work out. So I wound up a legal secretary—a job that was, for me, unfulfilling and unrelated to my passions.
It got worse. I scrambled to sidestep my situation and applied to several top tier PhD programs. I didn’t get in to any. I’d been so promising.
After nine months in Canada, I moved back home and flunked my seven-year relationship.
Nietzsche claimed—now a cliché—that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And that year did yield some good: if I hadn’t experienced it, I couldn’t empathize with my millennial readers; I might not have even begun writing for them. But overall it was a failure on all fronts. My soggy year in Vancouver was the embodiment of when it rains, it pours.
I’ve since learned I wasn’t alone. In fact, not only is this kind of failure spiral common, it’s biological.
When animals, be them tadpole or human, win at something, their brains release testosterone and dopamine. With time and repetition, this signal morphs the brain’s structure and chemical configuration to make successful animals smarter, better trained, more confident ,and more likely to succeed in the future. Biologists call it the Winner Effect.
The not-yet-named Loser Effect is equally cyclical: contrary to Nietzsche's adage, what doesn’t kill you often makes you weaker. In one study, monkeys who made a mistake in a trial—even after mastering the task on par with other monkeys—later performed worse than monkeys who made no mistakes. “In other words,” explains Scientific American, they were “thrown off by mistakes instead of learning from them.” Some research similarly suggests that failure can impede concentration, thereby sabotaging future performance. Students arbitrarily told they failed compared to their peers later displayed worse reading comprehension.
Finally, when we fail once, we’re more likely to fail again at the same goal—and sometimes more catastrophically. In one study, dieters fed pizza and convinced they’d “ruined” their daily diet goal ate 50 percent more cookies immediately afterward than those not on diets at all. When we fall short of our goals once, our brains say “Abandon ship!”
This spiral explains why one failure can seem to set many others in motion. Unfortunately, we often do exactly the wrong things after failing, thereby perpetuating our failure. The next time you fall short of your expectations, refrain from these three instinctual reactions to preserve your progress:
1. Don’t dwell on it.
We’re told to learn from our failures, so we fixate on them. But multiple studies show that worry, anxiety and focusing on failure are primary sources of impaired performance. Internalizing failure makes us less effective problem solvers, according to neurologist Judy Willis:
As you internalize your thwarted efforts to achieve your goals and interpret them as personal failure, your self-doubt and stress activate and strengthen your brain's involuntary, reactive neural networks. As these circuits become the automatic go-to networks, the brain is less successful in problem-solving and emotional control.
Long term, stress can literally “kill brain cells” and “erode higher-brain networks, inhibiting you from succeeding,” writes Don Goewey, author of The End of Stress, 4 Steps to Rewire Your Brain.
Instead, reframe and reimagine your failure: Research suggests you can “edit out” previous failures by visualizing them getting smaller and dimmer or infusing your memories of them with funny or improbable details. Each time we recall something, we change our memory of it. By associating your failure with something less weighty, you may dull its detriment on your brain and improve subsequent performance.
In short, resist dwelling on your failure once you’ve extracted the necessary lessons. Choose optimism: research shows that when people work with positive mindsets, performance in nearly every aspect improves. Happiness researcher Shawn Achor explains, “I could focus on the one failure in front of me, or spend my brain’s resources processing the two new doors of opportunity that have opened. One reality leads to paralysis, the other to positive change.”
2. Don’t wing it.
When we fail, sometimes we’re tempted—and even encouraged—to say, “Screw it!” We blindly pursue a new path, determined to succeed but directionless. This attitude echoes “Take the leap!,” a mantra to overcome fear of failure. But, in fact, the most successful people plan for failure. This doesn’t mean they plan to fail; it means they carefully plot and predict the results of their goals. They have backups in the event of failure. Without a plan, our brains typically choose the path of least resistance and the easiest possible outcomes—which often oppose our long-term goals.
Instead, set highly specific, far-reaching goals: A comprehensive review revealed that, in 90 percent of studies, specific, and challenging goals resulted in higher performance than did easy, imprecise goals. One study found that even defining “where” and “when” parameters of a task increases one’s likelihood of completing it.
Research furthermore indicates that planning for failures (e.g. “in the case of an emergency…”) helps people stay on task when challenged. One way to build a backup plan into your goals is by anticipating your future self not wanting to fulfill them due to procrastination, laziness, lack of self-control or any combination of self-sabotaging behaviors. Author Kevin Kruse explains, “Our future self is the enemy of our best self.” For example, if I wanted to write for two hours every morning before getting sucked into emails, Twitter, etc., I could disconnect my computer from wifi the night before. Then, my tomorrow self won't be distracted by a million notifications the moment I open my computer.
3. Don’t threaten yourself
After experiencing failure, we never want to fail again—particularly at the thing we failed at. As a result, we sometimes set subconscious goals like, “Do this right, or you’ll end up like last time.” This is what psychologists call “avoidance” or “prevention” motivation. But research shows that avoidance motivation tends to induce anxiety from fear of the potential negative outcome, which consequently impairs performance. This connection explains why athletes motivated by avoidance are more likely to choke under pressure.
Instead, set positive goals and celebrate small progress: More effective than avoidance is its opposite: “approach” or “promotion” motivation. When you’re determined to do something, remember that we’re more motivated by positive, specific goals than by vague threatening ones (e.g. “I want to write a bestselling book that gives millennials a new sense of urgency and personal power in their careers” not “I want to make a name for myself so I won’t die unacknowledged”).
Recognizing your progress, however small, does two things: first, it extends the enjoyment of our achievement and, secondly, it increases our motivation. Our brains accelerate as we perceive success to be closer; rats run faster at the end of the maze, and marathoners speed up after 26.1 miles in “the X-spot.” One study calls this the “goal looms larger” effect: as we move closer to our goals, both motivation and performance surge. Measuring and celebrating our progress can help us capitalize on this acceleration.
Failure is inevitable. How we move forward from failure determines whether failure becomes a biologically ingrained habit or a spotty memory. What will you choose?