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January 31, 2020
by Tina Arnoldi

Learning is Optimized When We Fail 15% of the Time

January 31, 2020 08:00 by Tina Arnoldi  [About the Author]

Photo by Element5 Digital on UnsplashTo learn new things, we must sometimes fail because when a challenge is too simple, we don’t learn anything new. According to a study in the journal Nature Communications, learning is optimized when we fail 15% of the time.

However, since people fear failure, they need a mindset change to see failure as ‘okay’. I invited experts to share thoughts about how people can learn it is okay to fail and to know that success is not guaranteed. 

“To change our mindset about failure, we must first understand how our brain tries to protect us from failure,” said counselor Kathryn Ely, MA. “Our brains were designed to protect us and keep us from harm. One form of harm our brain protects us from is emotional harm. When we think about doing something new, our brains tell us we need to learn more before we actually try it.”  

While our brains may protect us when we hesitate to take action, it can backfire, keeping us stuck and fearful of trying new things. Ely says “knowing this is the first step toward not letting our minds keep us from taking action. Once we know this we can practice being process focused instead of outcome focused. Outcome focused is results oriented so it lends itself to perfectionism and fear of trying. Being processed focused is caring about how and why you are doing what you are doing, rather than the outcome.” Chris Drew, PhD, celebrates failure with a “Failure Fridays” in his classroom. He explains, “Each Friday, I sit my class down and talk to them about failure. When students feel comfortable to fail, they feel comfortable to take risks.  Discovering that something is wrong is as much a learning experience as discovering that something is right.”

Linda Ruescher, with the Lupus Foundation of Florida, believes the opportunity to learn from failure depends in large part on how someone defines it. She explains, A child, or even an adult who explains failure as a flaw or not being good enough is not as likely to learn from failure as one who explains failure as an opportunity to try again and achieve mastery.” Tiiu Lutter, MA agrees, which is why she teaches parenting with the following formula: “High expectations, high praise, low consequence for failure." She adds "conceptions about failure do not happen in a vacuum." Often it is the potential external consequences of feedback from others that concerns people.We are more worried about being shamed, judged, or embarrassed than we are of the actual failure.”

But when people are in an environment where it is safe to fail and they feel supported, Yocheved Golani, with e-counseling.com, believes learning is truly optimized when we fail. Golani says, “Mistakes teach us what won't work, and that we need to focus on other options. Doing things correctly the first time leaves us bored and looking for a challenge. It's the excitement and satisfaction of having and meeting challenges that invigorates our souls and optimizes our memories.”  

Golani notes that statistics such as those cited in the referenced article are not good or bad; they are neutral facts. Failing 15% of the time is not the issue, it’s whether or not people can accept its inevitability. “Failure forces us to seek other methods, mindsets, and possible solutions.” Leah Remillét, with The CEO Kid, encourages people to “see every experience as part of a greater journey. When we can make this shift, that failures may not be failures at all, they may be guidance toward a better option that we can’t see yet.”

Along with a supportive environment, fears around failure can be addressed with self-talk. Lutter does this by saying “I am a good, intelligent person with positive intentions, I will still be that person moving forward, and I need to try new things to grow, get ahead, improve my life.” This helps her change her outlook. “When I fail, instead of despair, I look to see what I learned. How can I change my approach for my next attempt? And I move forward,” said Lutter.

Ely sees a change in mindset happening when people tie actions back to values. “To make decisions about new projects, decide what is important to you and take action toward it. If you value something, it's something you want to be known for, then don't let your brain trick you into inaction. Take action toward what you value.”

About the Author

Tina Arnoldi

Tina Arnoldi, MA is a business consultant and freelance writer in Charleston SC. She has reviewed books for PsychCentral and has a portfolio on Contently. You can learn more about her and connect at TinaArnoldi.com


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