The Best Way to Fail

The Best Way to Fail

Following a failure, is it better to reflect on how it makes you feel (i.e. your emotions) or on your thoughts? New research that has only recently been published sought to answer this question to find out the best way to fail.

Poet Robert Browning famously wrote that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp”. In essence, for us to develop and improve we should try to achieve things that may appear too difficult. So what is the best way to fail?

How to Fail Better

Recently, researchers examined the different ways people respond to failure and how to get the most from it. To do this, they had participants perform an everyday task (in this case it was to find the cheapest price of a blender online). The participants were informed that if they found the lowest price, they would win a cash prize. At the end, they were all told that someone else had found it cheaper and so had failed the task.

Half of the participants were encouraged to reflect on how their failure made them feel. The other half were told to reflect on what they were thinking about when they heard about their failure. They were then given a similar task to perform (i.e. searching for a book on a limited budget).

How did they respond? Those who had reflected on how their previous failure made them feel spent significantly longer on the second task. Essentially, the emotions from their previous failure helped them to stick with the subsequent task longer. The previous pain literally made them more resilient.

How Else Can Students Fail Better?

As well as reflecting on how the failure made us feel, other research has previously indicated additional strategies to help student’s fail better. These include:

Know The Value of Failure – It’s part of everyday life and sometime it is unavoidable. No matter how good you’re at a something, you will always experience some setbacks and failures.  Failure has many known benefits, such as potential improving resilience, aid learning and enhancing motivation. Knowing that it can help you can help sweeten the bitter taste that failure can sometimes leave.

Ask Yourself Good Questions - So if failure is inevitable at some stage, then those who can learn to fail better have a significant competitive advantage. This can be done by having a calm and consistent debrief after the event. To do this, questions such as ‘Was I trying something new?’, ‘What have I learnt?’ and ‘What would I do differently next time?’ are good starting points.

Don’t Fail Before You Have Even Begun – For many people, the fear of failure is worse than the actual failure itself. Worries about what a potential might mean for your future, or if it will be embarrassing, are known triggers for a reduction in performance. This can be overcome by focusing on the present moment, making sure that preparation has been thorough, and that you know who to go to if you need help or advice.

Final Thought

Failure should never be the aim. It shouldn’t be glamorised into something it’s not. However, if it is going to happen at some stage (and it almost certainly will) than we have a duty to teach students how to fail better. How well they manage their lows will almost certainly end up deciding how many highs they have. Giving them time and space to reflect on how that failure made them feel promises to be one encouraging strategy.


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