Humans are programmed to fail. Down to the genetic level, we are the result of random mutations that overwhelmingly failed to benefit us, very occasionally followed by a mutation that aided our survival enough to become incorporated into our very DNA. Failure is unavoidable. It is a part of the collective human experience, as much as suffering or joy or pain or love. No matter how much we dislike it, no matter how hard we work to avoid it, failure just is.
Our brains are wired to notice failure. One of the primary functions of our big, beautiful brains is to act essentially like a prediction machine. What worked today? What didn’t? What could I do differently tomorrow? We’re constantly forming hypotheses, testing our models, and adapting our worldviews to reflect our successes and failures. And, incredibly, this entire process is going on all the time without any conscious effort from us. Each time we learn from this exercise, we make incremental changes that increase our odds for success. These small changes shape who we are and how we adapt to our environments. Learn from your mistakes and increase your ability to adapt and thrive. Run from your mistakes and you’ll invariably hinder your own development.
So much of our lives are focused on ego protection – guarding our sense of self. When an essential aspect of our ego is threatened, our bodies and minds are put through considerable discomfort; we experience “cognitive dissonance,” or a threat to the maintenance of a positive view of ourselves. Ego protection is so fundamental to us that we have developed defense mechanisms to prevent us from facing the conflict: am I really who I think I am?
If your sense of self includes being a smart person, a capable person, a person who is good at their job – any failure in those areas can be a serious ego threat. Those failures cause anxiety, stress, and self-doubt, and naturally, people want to avoid those negative feelings. So we run from them. If we can avoid situations that may result in failure, we will never fail! A fool-proof ego-protection plan, right? If we choose not to choose, we can’t lose!
By avoiding situations in which we may fail, we learn to operate on fear of opportunity, limiting our potential, our growth, and our choices. Ideas and prospects that provide us with transformative growth are inherently risky. You could fail. Spectacularly. But you could also succeed. Grow. Reach your potential and explore your actualized self. There can be no great success without the risk of great failure.
Stop running from failure
So how do we move beyond our fear, stop running from failure, and learn from it instead? If we accept the premise that failure is ego threatening, it follows that we need to move beyond the ego, or at the very least turn the volume down, to open ourselves up to the learning that can come from our failures.
One way to do this is to accept failure as a necessary part of the process. Embrace the concept that failing at something is the first step towards being really good at something. When inevitable failure causes you discomfort, revel in the fact that you are participating in an essential part of the human experience – one in which every person, regardless of their impressive Instagram reel or aspirational Facebook highlights, participates. Success is polished and enviable and largely visible, whereas failure is kept hidden and private – but that doesn’t mean you’re experiencing it alone.
Failure is proof that you’re trying
Further, shift your paradigm of failure and incorporate it into your positive self-concept. Failure is proof that you’re trying and reaching for something greater than yourself. Stop making success the objective and realize that the value we generate in our lives and careers has less to do with achieving wild success and more to do with the knowledge and experience we gain over time. If we instead set goals based on our ideals and values, we not only become more resistant to maladaptive misery, rumination, and disillusionment, but we also give ourselves constructive context for our failures. Accept that innovation and development come from the questions that failures help us discover; without failure, there would be no need to analyze, investigate paradoxes, or explore the unknown. Embracing failure is the only way to avoid the obvious, step outside of what’s comfortable, and truly explore your ideas and possibilities.
So, failing doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It means you’re a person with great confidence. Someone who reaches for something better. An innovator. Someone who does what is necessary to provoke change. In fact, studies show that revealing your failures along with your successes can inspire feelings of inspiration and productivity in others; therefore, not only does admitting your failures help you grow, but it can also help you elevate others as well. And when we find personal growth or help others learn from our failures, we give those experiences meaning and purpose and become stronger in their aftermath. And all these things are valuable and important, just as you are valuable and important, success notwithstanding.
Grant yourself the grace to make mistakes
So, embrace your contribution to the collective failures that make us a success as a species. Realize that when you are seeing the overwhelming success of others, this is by design, and in no way does it reflect the reality of universal, constant, trial and error. Try to detach your ego from success and incorporate the positive and necessary aspects of failure into your growth paradigm. And most of all, grant yourself the grace to make mistakes, just as you grant that grace to others. It’s a part of the process; after all, you are human, too.