Failure is Opportunity

People sometimes say to me how concerned they are that they — or their children — not be ‘losers.’ They’re almost always surprised when I tell them that, in a certain context, losing can actually be GOOD for your mental health.

Of course, in a competitive sense, it’s clearly better to win than to lose. But sometimes life is less a competition against others than it is with your own best standards. Losing is an important part of our inability to gain knowledge automatically or achieve success without effort. That natural fact requires that loss and failure be possible, and it’s that very possibility that makes success meaningful.

Think how pointless success would be if achievement were guaranteed! What would be the point of career fulfillment if income and survival were automatic? Accomplishment would be worth nothing if it didn’t involve the possibility of failure.

Of course, we don’t strive for failure. But the prospect of losing is what makes gain meaningful. When you lose, it doesn’t make sense to celebrate, but it does make sense to remind yourself that nothing good comes easily. Achievement involves risk. You might lose, but you can strive for victory next time. It’s not a celebration of loss: It’s a celebration of life.

Over the last few years, I’ve read of parents, teachers and coaches who try to ‘protect’ kids from losing by eliminating winning and losing from sports and other competitions. Some schools have even done away with honor rolls, valedictorians and salutatorians because they see it as wrong to elevate a higher achiever above a lesser achiever. Policies such as these are based on wrong ideas about losing. They instill in a child the mistaken attitude that losing is something to avoid at all costs — even at the cost of pretending that it doesn’t exist! This is beyond insane.

Recent biological research backs this up. At Stanford University, Dr. Carol Dweck tracked and compared the brain waves of different people. She found that there are two types of brain wave patterns: ‘growth’ mindsets and ‘fixed’ mindsets. She discovered that people with growth mindsets become focused and attentive after making a mistake. Those with fixed mindsets never enter this focused state, showing little or no advancement after failure.

University of Southern California neuroscientist Antoine Bechara isolated two equally sized centers in the prefrontal cortex of the brain; one that appears to be responsible for the fear of failure and the other for the lure of success. It is between these, he claims, where the mental ‘debate’ between risk and reward takes place, as they interact during the decision-making process. This might account for the differences between the ‘growth’ and ‘fixed’ mindsets. Dr. Bechera concludes that, ‘In a normally functioning brain, failure is welcomed as an opportunity for learning and strengthening the species.’ In other words, natural selection at work.

You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to observe the attitudes people have about failure and loss. For years, mental health professionals have noted differences between people who interpret losing in depressing terms, as opposed to people who turn mistakes into opportunities for improvement. The simple fact is that failure happens for a reason, and we possess the power to discover that reason and to become wiser and stronger. The notion that ‘failure is opportunity’ is not some phony clichto make you feel better. It really is the truth.

Evidence points to the fact that the way we think shapes our brain as much as the other way around. Albert Ellis, a famous therapist, identified some false beliefs that help explain unhealthy attitudes about failure. One false belief is, ”a dire necessity for adult humans to be loved or approved by virtually every significant person in their community.’ If you believe this, losing will seem like a disaster. You won’t be able to view failure as an opportunity for growth because you’ll be too distracted by the (alleged) fact that people are looking down on you.

Another false belief identified by Dr. Ellis is that, ‘One absolutely must be competent’in all important respects or else one is an inadequate, worthless person.’ Y’know, it’s OK to NOT be good at something! Most of us don’t excel at everything. If you feel like you excel at nothing, then you simply haven’t found your talents yet. The challenge is to get out there — maybe even fail a few times — and discover your strengths.

Another false belief: ‘One’s past history is an all-important determiner of one’s present behavior’.’ This explains why some people are unable to view mistakes as something temporary from which they can learn and recover. Instead, they see it as something that will forever shape their future experiences. A self-fulfilling prophesy if there ever was one!

So many of our troubles and worries are rooted in false beliefs and mistaken ideas. No wonder losing and failure get such a bad rap.