Home » Learning to Fail in Order to Succeed in Changing Behaviour (Part 1)

Learning to Fail in Order to Succeed in Changing Behaviour (Part 1)

fail: to be unsuccessful in what is attempted (The Oxford English Dictionary)

No matter what dictionary I look at, all define to fail, or  failure, as the opposite of success. Essentially failure has no distinct definition of its own, but maybe it should.

From an early age, we’re taught that failing is not good, which may not be so bad. We all want to succeed, right? We’re told that only through success can we move further in life. Ever put up your hand in class or in a work meeting and was wrong? Not a good feeling.

Throughout schools now, there is a fear of letting a student fail. When I was growing up, two of my friends failed grade four and had to repeat it. I don’t think that would happen now, and it’s not because the teaching environment has improved any since then.

Many school sports competitions have done away with first, second and third, and replaced them with ribbons for all kids. Some parents complain when teachers want to set up reward systems for students who do well in class for fear that those who aren’t rewarded will feel bad. Is this helpful for when we get older?

James Dyson

All of this occurs even though we hear successful people, people we may idolize, like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, talk about how they failed miserably, and how they credited their failures for their successes. James Dyson, inventor of the cool bagless vacuum and the hand dryer that actually dries hands is known for his sayings such as: “Enjoy failure and learn from it. You can never learn from success.”

A lot of times our fear of failure or fear of disappointment (whether in ourselves or to others) prevents us from even trying. Many people fear public speaking or even asking a question in a meeting for fear of not doing a good job, in other words, failing.

As a research scientist, I’ve failed more times than I can remember. My studies have failed, I failed at many project funding applications and I’ve been rejected numerous times from scientific journals who don’t want to publish my research. I found that a manageable type of failure, maybe because it was a common reality in my job and I had many colleagues in the same boat. However, I experienced a deeper type of fear when starting this blog.

At the end of 2016 I set the goal to start this blog in the New Year. After months of planning and reading blogs on how to blog (ironic, eh?), I finally launched my first article in April. It didn’t really take four months of preparation. I was procrastinating, hesitant, afraid, fearful of… failure. A friend of mine asked: “What’s the worst that could happen?” I replied, “well, nothing. Nothing at all. I mean no one will read it.” Not really all that bad when you think about it. So I did it. This is my 42nd article and while the same fear isn’t there, my heart still flutters every time I push that publish button to post a new article (will people like it? did I miss a typo?).

Recently, I’ve been taking improv acting class as a way to improve my public speaking (it works and is fun). Fundamental to doing well in improv is to be willing to accept and embrace failure. If you’ve ever watched improv, some of the funniest scenes are the ones where the actor forgets what the scene is about, what his/her partner’s name is, etc. Being more philosophical about it, doing well in improv isn’t so much about embracing failure as it is about taking risks; putting yourself in a situation outside of your comfort zone where there is a high-risk of failure.


That is where our focus should be, on the fact that we stepped up and took that risk, raised our hand at the meeting, spoke at our friend’s wedding or tried to quit smoking. In fact, it’s a success we even tried knowing we could fail. In basketball there’s a saying that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

With every graduate student I’ve supervised, he/she has had a concern about their experiments not working out properly or their hypotheses not being accepted. In our research we deal with people in the real world and not cells in a petri dish, so a lot can go wrong. I tell them they are here first and foremost to learn, not to get things right. Not everything will turn out as we expect, or even hope for, but it doesn’t mean we’re a failure in the negative sense of the word. Why bother doing an experiment if we know everything will turn out right?

Not everyone though, is ready to accept and embrace failure. Some people thrive on it, analyze what led them to failure, learn from it and move on. Others, can internalize failure, let it reflect on their personal self-worth lowering their confidence (or self-efficacy) making them afraid to try again. However, failing is a part of development, growth and inevitable success. This may not make sense because life would be great if everything turned out as we wanted to, but life isn’t that way. It’s full of potholes, obstructions and dead ends that we need to navigate.

fail to success

How we define failure may look different for each of us (not trying, or trying and not finishing, or trying and not getting the result we want), but one thing most people generally think is that failing is not succeeding. I think failing is something different; it offers a lot of opportunity to grow and find out what works for next time. The earlier in life we start failing, the better prepared we are for it in the future.

Next week I will continue with how to plan for failure so it can help us make positive lifestyle changes.

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7 responses to “Learning to Fail in Order to Succeed in Changing Behaviour (Part 1)”

  1. This is a fantastic article, it is so true. I learnt so much in our 4 km swim, it pushed me to do my next swim, 5 km, which I completed. I have even higher goals, and my success is doing better and learning each time. Doing better each time is my goal.

    1. That’s a great example of learning from one’s experiences.

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