I worded the title of this blog to capture the attention of people who do believe their mistakes are failures, but in all honesty, I don’t believe mistakes are failures. And I’d like to explain to you my reasoning for that plus in a future blog give you some tips on coping with perceptions of failure. For now I just want to convince you that using the word failure, for any reason, is a mistake.
I think the key to changing ones perception of how to think about failure is to first look at the literal description:
Failure: The condition or fact of not achieving the desired end or ends.
Okay, well I can’t argue with that definition. If you set out to be a multi-millionaire and fall short of that, then by the literal definition, you have failed. But wait, doesn’t that just mean that failure is not achieving a goal? Well, wouldn’t the answer then be to set your expectations lower? By that tactic, you would never fail. If your idea of success is to wake up every morning and be alive, then everyday is a success. It means that success is technically in your control as you define the parameters of that success. It would be nice if it worked like that wouldn’t it? But certainly, lowering our expectations can be difficult when we are so convinced they should be of a certain standard.
When thinking about failure I don’t think human beings are literal about the definition of the word. I actually think failure has an extremely heavy emotional weighting. So like a good scientist I double checked my gut feeling on this by looking up a study of the affective value of certain words. I found that the valence, or ‘mood’ of the word failure trended towards the negative. To put it simply, it just means that we interpret the word ‘failure’ as ‘bad’. As for the arousal value of the word (or way it affects peoples sympathetic nervous system — the system involved with panic and anxiety), it was 2.81 standard deviations across a normal sample mean. For those non-statistic geeks. It just means in a large sample of words, the word ‘failure’ tends to affect us more than the other 99% of words. Amazing, huh?
So while it may be correct to call a mistake a failure, it certainly is not helpful to call a mistake a failure. Why?
When we label an ‘effort’ or an ‘attempt’ at something we find challenging a ‘failure’ it means we are burdening our already suffered loss of that potential success with more negative feelings. It’s like punishing a child for not being able to run faster than the other kids in the class when they haven’t even trained. Overall, it would make the child associate negative things with that task (running a race) and make the child think he deserves to be punished when he doesn’t do as well as others, which is a whole other problem which we won’t touch on here. For now, we’ll assume we are seeing our failure in a bubble that isn’t associated with others (as difficult as that is).
Things become worse when we internalize the word failure to describe ourselves.
‘I didn’t get an A on my math test, I’m a failure.’
Notice the problem there? In that case we’re not labeling the behavior (getting less than an A on our test) the failure, we’re labeling ourselves. When we begin to link our ‘efforts’ to our ‘self-concept’ (how we see ourselves), we begin to affect our self-esteem in a negative way. This is when things go wrong. At this point, when you begin to see yourself as the failure (not the amount of effort you put in, not the feelings of anxiety that scrambled your brain during the math test, not the fact you sometimes struggle with math) you labelled yourself, you, the person, as a failure.
Why is this bad?
When we begin to perceive ourselves as something bad. Something to be disliked, scorned or put-down, we begin to incorporate only certain things into our perception. Let me give you an example.
Maria goes into work and discovers that she made a mistake on her monthly sales report. The report was passed up the chain of command and affected overall sales reports for that year. It was a mistake with a large impact. Maria has always been a good worker, responsible and conscientious about her work, so this was a shock to her.
Now, should she A: Conclude that she is a failure and she should begin to doubt her ability as a good worker?
Or B: Look at the evidence that she is usually a good worker, usually does everything right and that this isn’t a representative of herself, but a representative of just having a bad day?
Certainly, we should pick B. Why? Because that’s more indicative of the truth. It’s not true that she is a failure. It is true that she is usually a good worker (labeling the behavior rather than the self). See how that works?
If she labels herself as A: a failure that is bound to make more mistakes. She might get nervous about her work. Let’s look at a possible future if Maria decides that she is a failure, blames herself and begins to focus on the negative.
Maria now comes into work with fear and anticipation of further documents she creates. She begins to spend extra time on them certain she’s made a mistake somewhere and that she can’t possibly get it right. In her anxiety over her reports other parts of her work suffer and she falls behind. She begins to lose sleep causing her more anxiety and making her feel horrible at work the next few days. More mistakes occur and Maria becomes convinced that she is a failure and cannot do her job properly.
This is an exaggerated example, but see how she has spiraled negatively over one mistake? If she’d called it a mistake, something easy to fix, something she can improve on in the future, she might not have caused herself extra pain. Isn’t it more realistic and helpful for her to continue feeling positive about the future?
The other problem with worrying about failure is that anxiety over failure can lead to future mistakes through disintegration of self-confidence. When we doubt ourselves, we hesitate, overcompensate and become self-conscious. We begin to concentrate on every little error we make, we beat ourselves up over the mistakes instead of looking for our successes as well. If Maria was to write a 1000 word document and spell one word correctly. Isn’t she 999 words successful with 1 mistake? Isn’t the success (writing 999 words right) outweighing the mistake?
Well, yes, but sometimes that logic doesn’t work because our brains are hardwired to see the negative. As a blog writer. I sometimes hit submit too hastily. I have the traits of a perfectionist which I continue to manage, however, sometimes I can be a little harsh on myself if I find errors in a post that’s already gone live. How does it help me to beat myself up over spelling/grammar issues? It doesn’t. What helps is to fix it as soon as I notice it. Take more care in the future. And focus on a time when I’ll have honed my skills even further so that less errors are made. Now that’s helpful!
I read a psychology book on parenting in my second year of university. It said that human beings can equally weigh positive things against negative things as long as the positive things occur at a ratio of 80:20. That means that praise and positivity should be demonstrated four times more than the negative. If you are an employer at work, make sure you’re giving your employees four times as much positive feedback as negative to help them feel good about their work (Actually, if you are tactful you can turn any criticism into a positive feedback by re- framing. I will address this as well in a later post).
This is turning into a long post but I hope at this point I’ve convinced you that seeing our ‘falling shorts’ as ‘failures’ is unhelpful and that we should learn to call them mistakes. Mistakes are okay. Mistakes can be fixed and mistakes aren’t the end of the world. Watch out for my next post on ways to manage a ‘failure’.
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Best of Our Blogs: December 14, 2012 | World of Psychology (December 14, 2012)
Last reviewed: 10 Dec 2012