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The psychology of failure

How to overcome your mistakes

By Fiory MoPublished 2 months ago 3 min read

In a study conducted in 2019, researchers embarked on an intriguing experiment involving more than 400 participants. The task at hand? Learning a completely fabricated language adorned with enigmatic symbols. Each participant was presented with pairs of these runes and tasked with discovering their meanings through questions such as, "Which of these symbols represents an animal?" Following a brief intermission, the participants encountered the same pairs of symbols once again, but this time, the questions were reversed, asking , "Which of these symbols represent a non-living object?" However, there was a twist lurking beneath the surface of this linguistic game. The responses provided by the participants in the initial round served as the blueprint for determining the meanings of the symbols in the subsequent round. Some were informed that they had answered every question correctly in the first round, while others were instructed that their responses were entirely incorrect. This strategic manipulation ensured an equilibrium among all participants at the intermission, leveling the playing field for the ensuing round. Surprisingly, those who had succeeded in decoding the symbols in the first round tended to excel once again, while those who had failed continued to struggle.

The conventional wisdom often celebrates the virtues of failure as a teacher, emphasizing its role as a stepping stone towards improvement. Yet, the reality is that learning from failure is not always a straightforward endeavor. Failures can inflict blows to our self-confidence, leaving us feeling demoralized, overwhelmed, or simply perplexed. Following a replication of the previously mentioned study with the runes, participants who were categorized into the failure group reported significantly lower levels of self-confidence post-engagement. It's easy to dismiss this emotional distress as a temporary setback, but scientific inquiry suggests otherwise. Studies indicate that feelings of incompetence or demoralization can hinder our brain's capacity to process new information effectively, impeding our ability to learn from our mistakes.

However, our receptiveness to failure is not solely determined by its emotional toll; it also hinges on our relationship with the task at hand. A study dating back to 2011 surveyed a group of American students enrolled in both introductory and advanced French courses. These students were asked to indicate their preference regarding teaching styles: whether they preferred instructors who accentuated their strengths and successes or those who focused on rectifying their mistakes and weaknesses. The findings revealed an intriguing dichotomy. Beginner students tended to gravitate towards positive reinforcement, craving affirmation to sustain their motivation. Conversely, advanced students displayed a greater appetite for critical feedback, recognizing its potential to expedite their skill development. This divergence in preferences can be attributed to various factors. Beginners, still in the early stages of their learning journey, are confronted with questions of commitment and enjoyment, making praise a vital tool for maintaining their engagement. In contrast, advanced learners, already deeply invested in the subject matter, prioritize efficiency in skill refinement, acknowledging that learning from mistakes is an integral aspect of mastery.

Whether one is a novice or an expert, the process of learning from failure is full of challenges. While it may be relatively straightforward to derive lessons from our successes, the same cannot be said for our failures. Consider the scenario of receiving grades on an exam. A stellar performance provides clear indications of effective study habits and content mastery, facilitating replication in subsequent assessments. However, a subpar grade presents a conundrum. The reasons for failure could be manifold—insufficient study efforts, misguided focus, or perhaps an assessment that unfairly assessed the material. In such instances, deciphering the precise cause of failure becomes a daunting task, impeding our ability to devise strategies for improvement.

Despite the natural inclination to obtain insights from our failures, fixating excessively on our shortcomings can obscure our achievements. In many cases, it is more prudent to build upon our successes rather than dwell incessantly on our failures. By cultivating a growth mindset and fostering resilience, we can navigate the intricate terrain of failure with grace and emerge stronger and more adept on the other side.


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