Mistakes Are Not Catastrophes; They Are Part of Growth

People sometimes tell me how concerned they are that they — or their children — not be “losers.” They’re almost always surprised when I tell them that losing can actually be good for your mental health.

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 against your own best standards. Humans cannot gain knowledge automatically or achieve success without effort, and that natural fact requires the possibility of loss and failure. In fact, it’s that very possibility that makes success meaningful.

Success would be pointless 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 bring with it the possibility of failure. You might lose, but next time you can strive for victory. It’s not a celebration of loss; it’s a celebration of life.

We all know about the trend of parents, teachers and coaches trying to “protect” kids 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 dangerously 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 during the decision-making process; perhaps accounting 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.

Every day I see and hear different attitudes from people about failure. I see clear differences between people who interpret losing in depressing terms as opposed to those 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. And it’s not some phony cliché to make you feel better. It’s the truth.

Evidence points to the fact that the way we think shapes our brain as much as the other way around. Noted therapist and author, Albert Ellis, identified some false beliefs that help explain unhealthy attitudes about failure. One false belief is, “One absolutely must be competent in all important respects or else one is inadequate.” Y’know, it’s OK to not be good at something! If you feel like you excel at nothing, then you simply haven’t found your talents yet. The challenge is to get out there and maybe even fail a few times in order to discover your strengths.

So bring back the honor rolls, the valedictorians and the achievement awards. So many of the troubles and worries I see every day are rooted in false beliefs and mistaken ideas. No wonder losing and failure get such a bad rap.