When I was ten years old, I was riding my black quarter horse and helping my dad cut a horned bull from the cattle herd. The bull suddenly turned, horns first, and charged my horse. I grabbed the saddle horn; my horse pivoted on his back hooves and we got away unharmed.  My first attempt was a failure, but I still needed to find a way to get the bull corralled.

Nothing grabs our attention like a failure. For me, as a ten-year-old kid, failure meant I was not successful in getting the bull into the corral. Like most people, I defined failure as a lack of success.

This attitude is not only antiquated, it is dangerous—because failure is an important learning tool for the brain. The thought process that follows a failure can be the thing that either strengthens or diminishes our future endeavors.

Success releases endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, feel-good hormones that encourage us to move forward and engage in similar tasks. Psychologists call it the Winner Effect.

Failure releases cortisol, a stress hormone that leaves us with feelings of anxiety. Successful people are mentally tough and are not thrown off by mistakes. Instead, they learn from them.

When we dwell on an outcome, we make neuropathways stronger so it’s critical to identify ways your failure will help you make progress in the future. After you experience a failure, you can rewire your brain in positive ways if you look for behaviors or outcomes you can control and then come up with small, concrete steps you can take to ensure they continue to happen.

Here is what successful people know about failure:

1. Feeds The Brain, Which Is Starving

A child learns to walk by falling down; scientists experiment to identify what doesn’t work so it can be eliminated from future experiments. Error is a feedback mechanism to enable learning.

The limbic brain system has kept us safe for centuries because it pays more attention to negative information that could be perceived as a threat. It taught cavemen to GET lunch, and not BE lunch. This “negativity bias” is what drives learning since negative information gets the brain’s attention faster than positive information.

Failure forces us to integrate new information, and researchers have found the bigger the failure, the more we learn. The brain, you might say, feeds on failure.

How To Make It Work For You: Don’t have a meltdown if something fails. Take the opportunity to ask yourself a very important question: Does the challenge represent a goal that is important to you? This is not the time to pursue something for which you have no heart.

2. Whips Back The Monster Called Ego

To the unconscious mind, being successful means being worthy. At the deepest level, success means we are worthy of being loved. And being loved is what matters to us most.

Failure reinforces a belief that we don’t have what it takes to make it in the world. While we don’t welcome them, failures remind us that we are not the center of the universe. If we really think about our experiences, we can see that there are factors beyond our control—indeed, factors that have nothing at all to do with us.

Failure humbles us, and this can be a good thing. In today’s world, the word humility is the opposite of the “look at me because I’m so cool” attitude that has weakened society’s ability to be mentally tough when times get tough. Oh, and guess what? Times are tough. No wonder there are so many people who feel hopeless and are clueless about how to cope when their world is not perfect.

How To Make It Work For You: Try on a little humility, you might like it. Humility—

  • Is not thinking less of yourself, but rather thinking about yourself less.
  • Reminds you that you’re no more important than anyone else.
  • Cautions you to remember that no amount of success you’ve had in the past will guarantee success in the future.
  • Points out that it’s not about you.
  • Makes you more authentic, which breeds trust.
  • Produces better professionals, better leaders, and better human beings.

3. Explores The Unknown And Make New Discoveries

Psychologist B.F. Skinner once said that when you try something new and produce a result that was not what you expected (i.e. failure), drop everything and study it further because failure can be the portal for a new discovery.

Roy Plunkett, a chemist at DuPont, set out to invent a new refrigerant. Instead, he created a glob of white waxy material that conducted heat and did not stick to surfaces. Fascinated by this “unexpected” material, he abandoned his original line of research and experimented with this interesting material, which eventually became known by its household name—Teflon.

How To Make It Work For You: Accept that humans are imperfect creatures and there will always be a gap between what you are and what you can be. Failure can help you succeed because it sparks your desire to grasp what is just beyond your reach. Your struggle with your own failings can, ironically, bring out the best in you.

4. Gets Our Attention

One of the primary reasons we learn so much from our failures is that they get our attention. If everything purrs along at a good clip, we can become complacent. One thing FBI agents learn early in training is it’s not the streets or guns that will kill you, complacency is the thing that’ll lead to extinction.

Failure will often persuade you to try something new, and you will keep drifting until you finally succeed at something. And that is where most of us stay—at mediocrity. It’s a mediocrity that that comes from success without failure.

Failure reminds us of what we really want in life. If we experience a failure while in pursuit of an important goal, we’ll push ourselves even harder. We’ll lean into our resilience to move ahead. At other times, a failure is a good time to re-evaluate our strategies and to shift gears.

Warren Bennis once said, “All great leaders have, without exception, experienced traumatic failure. It’s as if that moment the iron entered their soul; that moment created the resilience that leaders need.”

While many life lessons show up as a failure, success can also produce good lessons. In a recent study, Professor Adam Kepecs of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory says we need to recall our victories as well. While failure gets our attention, success produces dopamine which builds confidence in ourselves. Since the brain’s primary function is to keep us safe, the shot of dopamine reminds us that we can make clear, quick decisions in the future.

Life is a wild and crazy rollercoaster, full of ups, downs, and unexpected turns. If things are good right now, enjoy it; it won’t last forever.  When life is going wrong, don’t worry; it won’t last forever either.

How To Make It Work For You: The next time you experience failure, take a look at your goals (you have goals, right?) Review how your goals will lead you toward fulfilling your mission (you have one of those as well, right?) Maybe your goals need to be tweaked in light of new information. Plan ahead by anticipating the repercussions of another failure. Always have a Plan B and a solid action plan to help you move past a setback.

BTW, I knew my horse spooked the bull but I refused to accept defeat and tried something different: I got off my horse and stood in front of the bull. He swung his head so hard, snot flung from side to side. The bull eventually turned around and wandered in the direction of the corral. I followed, leading my horse. And guess what? I got the bull corralled in the end.

© 2020 LaRae Quy. All rights reserved.

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Author of “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths

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