Getting the most out of failure

NOTE: I am a guest blogger at Minds On Fire. I write at Cartesian Faith about mathematics, data analysis, and management science.  Sometimes I post pictures as well. My focus here will be about applying analytical thinking to improve life skills, such as decision making and interpersonal interaction.

I read a quote the other day that said “if you are always succeeding, then you aren’t pushing yourself enough”. I think this quote captures perfectly the idea that to improve yourself, you need to go outside your comfort zone. Doing this forces you to accept that failure can occur. Few people are naturally good at everything, so it takes practice to excel. This is true of playing sports, games, writing, speaking, networking, business, etc. So go ahead and try something new. It’s not a big deal if you fail.

But wait, overcoming the fear of failure is only half the solution. Practice without learning and failure without reflection will just result in more failure. The key is to not hold yourself back due to fear of failure, while simultaneously doing what is necessary to minimize the chance of failure. This past winter I went ice climbing, and our guide was discussing the safety of knots, pointing out good knots and bad knots. He was adamant about safety and used this rule of thumb to serve as the final arbiter of safety: if I die doing this, will people say it was a freak accident or that I was stupid and careless?

While a bit extreme for every day life the same principle applies to other forms of failure. In essence did you fail despite your best effort or did you fail because you were unprepared and careless? The key to effective failure then is about preparing (education) beforehand, staying cool and observing during the activity (feedback), and thinking about what worked and didn’t work (reflection) afterward. Following this approach will reduce unnecessary failure. If you think in terms of “practice makes perfect”, the point of failure is to achieve success. Failure without improvement just leads to more failure and discouragement. So be fearless, and also be smart about failure.

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