What Do We Learn From The Consequences of Failure?

Mar 6, 2018

I asked a handful of people on the street to answer a quick question: “Can discomfort and failure be used as learning tools?” Generally their answer was yes, and focused heavily on failure; discomfort was merely its side effect. This got me thinking about a few things: Do most people know that failure is a positive thing? If so, why is it still so hard as a society, and as an individual, to accept failure?

Is discomfort giving us a negative outlook on failure? I’m conflicted about this assumption, but I think others are too. Discomfort, being an unpleasant emotion, is hard to handle when it arises. But if we were to fail without it, would we have the incentive to learn from what we did wrong?

Personally, my recovery and growth that stems from failure is because of my desire to not fail like that again. And even though I know that we need to fail, I still don’t want to. I want to avoid those negative emotions. What if we were to embrace discomfort, similar to how we should be embracing failure? If it were to become an expected tool to help identify flaws, would that remedy that initial rejection of failure? Even if it did fix the failure dilemma, how do we embrace discomfort, how are we to be “comfortable” with discomfort?

Discomfort that stems from failure has many faces, such as distress, embarrassment and disappointment. And depending on one’s outlook on how, why or what will happen when they fail, different elements of a situation will trigger different reactions. That means that there’s a need to approach different situations and mentalities in a variety of different ways.

A peer of mine is a self-professed perfectionist. It has paid off too; she’s in advanced academic programs, has certainty that she wants something to do with the field of biology, and has a sturdy foundation to gain footing in that career. But she’s also made big mistakes. In her sophomore year, she was conducting an experiment with starfish. All of them died. This was a really harsh blow for her. Not only was there the disappointment of not achieving her goal the way she wanted to, but the judgment of her peers and role models ate at her. She said they might think, “Oh, Emma’s really slacking, or she messed up hard this semester.”  From that anxiety she noted, “I think it’s the judgment, too, that I’m terrified of. . .” 

What’s productive in her reflection, and what’s destructive? She wants to exceed in her academics, which creates a displeasure when she fails. Then, critical thinking is used to avoid any similar situations in the future. What comes from that is a healthy cycle of trial, error and success. But she’s “terrified” of judgment from others because of the stigma on failure. Failure to her is something that negatively impacts her character; there’s a disregard of a positive outcome that makes her not want to fail. At all. This is unhealthy, and I can relate to it all too well.

Where’s this stigma coming from? On the street, the general consensus was that failure is a positive thing. That consensus is something I’ve heard beyond that study too, from teachers to my parents to inspirational videos online, they preach that failure is a natural way to improve ourselves. And it’s an applicable mentality to everyone, I mean how many times have you been told: “Everybody makes mistakes.” 

My previous article, That F Will Make You Smarter explains this in part, but not fully. I think this is also because we categorize discomfort as a very black and white thing. Whether this is from our withdrawal when talking about discomfort, our tendency to generalize, or whatever mix of things, there's a disconnect from the reality of any tough situation because of it.

Failure is vast and varied, and  “the right” kind and “the wrong” kind of discomfort mirrors that. Can there a guideline determining what is productive and/or destructive? With that, can there be a guideline on how to deal with it proactively?

I have left this piece with mostly questions. I do speculate, but I don’t think the few I have talked to and I can determine anything for certain. Really I don’t think any body of people should fully believe they can; but that’s not to say vast progression won't follow the attempt to conclude.

So what do you think? Whether it be a personal experience, philosophical theories, or a tangent this piece made you go on, let’s talk about it. You can leave your thoughts on this survey, as well as read comments and opinions from others in your community. Thank you for your ideas, contributions, and consideration!

Leonid Eichfeld is a student at Baxter Academy for Technology and Science and is a regular contributor to Raise Your Voice.