Failure, In Defense of:

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

According to Alexander Pope, the famous 17th century poet, “to err is human, to forgive divine.” However, by the standards of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, there is no room to “err” because there can only be success. What better glorification of success is there but the novels of writer Ayn Rand who wrote such works as Atlas Shrugged.

The purpose of this log entry is to take an opposite point of view to the emphasis on success. What I am hinting at is that failure is a great way to learn.

Hara Marano, Editor at Large for Psychology Today Magazine wrote a short article summarizing the findings of some research she read in the May 2007 issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. The findings of the research, done by psychologist Andy Wills at the University of Exeter in England, were that our brains quickly learn from the mistakes we make. When we next come up against similar problems at which we formerly failed, the situation is quickly assessed, in a split second, so that we have an improved chance of not repeating the same error. In other words, we learn from our failure.

We learn from our failure? Is this a concept that sounds jarring in our age of perfectionism? I repeatedly work with patients who are dedicated to being perfect in their work and personal lives. The emphasis on perfection is so strong in these people that they become obsessional in their pursuit of perfection.

The difficulty we have, especially as Americans, in admitting to failure is that it limits our ability to learn. It works something like this:

“I am convinced that if:

1. I am successful it is due to my talents and strengths but, If

2. I fail at something it is the fault of someone or something else, i.e., anything or anyone I can blame such as my boss, etc.

I know people like this who repeat their errors because they blame others for their failure. If you accept the idea that failure is just information, then you can learn from it and move on in a way that is greatly improved. In fact, Dr. Marano states that there is more to be learned by errors and failures than from successes. After all, a success may be due to nothing more than dumb luck or good fortune. However, if I can accept the idea that it was my error that caused the failure than I gain greater control and improved functioning, either in my personal, academic or work life.

There is real meaning to the old saying, “If at first I do not succeed I will try and try again.”

Doctor Marano even states that ” if we never fail we are never testing our limits.”

When we were learning how to do research in graduate school we were taught that the scientific method involves experimentation. In conducting an experiment we were taught to test the “Null Hypothesis.” The Null Hypothesis is the idea that the theory or principle we are testing is wrong. In other words, we do not want to prove we are correct but that we are wrong. Only in this way can we remain objective and objectivity is the only way to remain fully scientific or non-biased.

So, here is to failure and our ability to learn from it.

Your comments are fully appreciated and encouraged.

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