THE F WORD..
WHY FAILURE IS YOUR FRIEND Failure: doesn’t sound great, feels even worse. But is there a chance it could be your new secret weapon?
A few years ago, in a job going nowhere fast, I decided to have a crack at a different industry. After weeks of laborious War and Peace-length applications, I was invited for an interview and tasked with giving a presentation. On e-soccer. To be clear, I’ve never owned a PlayStation or an Xbox. Nor have I ever followed a real soccer tournament. In the 180 seconds that came next, I felt as if I were perilously perched on the edge of a 15m diving board, ready to fall. Stomach churning and mind buzzing, I did the only thing I thought I could: I typed a reply politely apologising and withdrew from the process. Why? Because I was shit-scared I’d fail.
So the question is: why the terror? “Our brains have evolved to be particularly adept at zoning in on the potential negative outcomes of our actions,” says neuroscientist Dr Rick Hanson. It’s a phenomenon demonstrated in a 1998 study by Ohio State University, where researchers found that negative images prompted more electrical activity in the brain than positive ones. “Your brain is engineered to be triggered by threats, perceived or otherwise,” says Hanson. “It’s why, after glancing at faces for just a tenth of a second, participants fixated on angry or threatening ones, while barely noticing those that looked happy.” Intriguing! It’s this negativity bias, found to occur in babies as young as six months old, that makes you so afraid of what could go wrong. Indeed, as soon as you take on something potentially stuffup-able, the brain senses a threat and triggers the release of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. This prompts your body to enter fight-or-flight mode, which – according to Dr Gregory Berns, professor of neuroeconomics and author of Satisfaction: Sensation Seeking, Novelty And The Science Of Finding True Fulfilment – switches off “exploratory activity and risk-taking”. Essentially, you become blind to the benefits of a new experience, regardless
of how beneficial it could be for your career, relationship, health, happiness – or all of the above.
Beyond the fail
“We fear failure for two reasons,” says social psychologist Dr Omar Yousaf. “First, we’ve evolved to see social acceptance and status as critical to survival, so the thought of damaging your reputation is seen as a huge danger when it comes to facing a risky situation. Second, we’ve learnt to understand failure as an unpleasant experience that’s likely to prompt feelings of shame and hurt.” So, fear is a reflex that protects you when you’re faced with failure. But, in a world where getting ahead means overcoming gargantuan challenges like, you know, a 10-minute presentation on the wants of middle-aged gamers, it can be pretty damaging. So how do you rein in that negative voice? If failure itself is a real prospect and our fear of it an innate chemical response, surely it’s game over? Well, not necessarily. There are things you can do to dial down the dread. It sounds simplistic, but embrace the little wins – those so small you wouldn’t even bother humble-bragging about them on your socials. When you nail life admin you’ve been putting off; when you keep a house plant alive for longer than a month. “Hold that small feeling of achievement in your mind for 10 to 15 seconds – long enough for you to actually register it,” Hanson suggests. This is key because, while bad experiences are stored to memory almost immediately, positives take around 12 seconds to stick, he says. So you’re training your brain to buy into positives, such as the upside of risk. It’s also time to redefine failure. We’ve all been conditioned to perceive success in a certain way, which then makes us believe that shifting those boundaries is failure. “A way to stop fearing failure is to stop seeing it by the standards you may have been brought up with,” says psychotherapist Hilda Burke. Breaking up with someone who’s not right for you isn’t failing, just like not being offered a job because it wasn’t the best fit wouldn’t have been a failure on my part. It’s certainly a mentality I wish I’d had for that presentation. Even if I had embarrassed myself, I’d have proven that I was capable of stepping up to a challenge.
Recruit a tutor
Still running in the opposite direction? Try bringing in a third party, but look beyond your usual suspects, suggests life coach Dr Sally Ann Law. “Choose someone outside of your immediate circle. You’re more likely to dismiss your mom’s well-intentioned ‘Of course you can do it’ than you would someone you consider to have objectivity and authority.” Grab a coffee with the former boss you admired or someone older than you who’s been there and done that. Ultimately, the instinct to see the negatives is in all of us. “Negative thoughts and small doses of anxiety are a natural part of life,” says life coach Vanessa Loder. “Your job is to manage them. See the beating heart and dry mouth as a sign that you’re preparing to tackle your next challenge.” It’s scary, but Everest isn’t going to climb itself, is it?
IT’S AN OPPORTUNITY TO GROW.