"Your Brain on Failure" by Director of Academic Support Michael Hoe
I was recently reading a book to my daughter before bed entitled Rosie Revere, Engineer, which is about an imaginative girl who wants to build things. However, a failed invention coupled with laughter from her uncle makes her vow to herself that “she would never invent things again.” Later in the book, a Great Great Aunt teaches her the importance of focusing on the successes in her failure and to embrace the process, rather than on the failure itself.
At Nobles, we all hold ourselves to incredibly high standards, and time and time again, I hear that failure is simply “not an option.” But it should be. For years, psychologists and neuroscientists have been researching how both success and failure affect the brain and how that might manifest in various aspects of life.
Recent studies have shown that, contrary to popular belief, failure does not necessarily rewire the brain. Unlike success, the actual effects of failure on the brain have yet to be seen. However, ample research shows that failure triggers the stress response in the brain, which increases levels of cortisol released in the brain. This definitely activates memory pathways, stimulates fear-based responses, and ultimately results in physiological responses such as: the sweaty palms, the increase in breathing rate, the knots in the stomach, and all of the other undesirable stressful responses that we’ve experienced. And, not only are the physical symptoms unpleasant, but heightened levels of cortisol actually also cause us to miss the objective components of that failed experience that could have actually taught us something. Also...SPOILER ALERT: Internalizing failure induces the aforementioned stress response and anxiety which are actually counterproductive to learning. In extreme cases, high levels of stress can actually kill neurons and damage existing neural networks, causing people to actually forget previously learned knowledge.
So how can we better frame failure? In an article in Forbes (and later published on HuffPost), Caroline Beaton suggests these three ways to reimagine failure which I’ve summarized into: Set clear, attainable goals that propel you forward and prepare for “setbacks or emergencies.” If and when you do fail, don’t dwell on it or use it to threaten yourself. Reframe it and learn from it.
Sure, “dreaming big,” is always good, but research shows that, when people fail to meet a large, lofty goals, the resulting disappointment can be heightened. Instead, dream big, but set some smaller, more attainable goals along the way to use as “springboards” for continuing work toward the larger end goal. Not only will this increase net overall productivity, but it will also help with planning, organizing, executing, and pivoting when necessary (and all of those other lovely executive functions that we all love).
When we try to find positives in failures, it helps us take something that does not naturally affect the brain (failure) and turn it into something that actually does use an internal mechanism in the brain (success). Furthermore, countless studies have shown that, by focusing on small successes, performance and motivation levels of the individual noticeably increase through the completion of the goal. In more and more companies, there are now “Failure Departments” where failed protocols, designs, experiments, business plans, etc. are all documented and then published during the company's annual reviews. According to one of the “Heads of Failure” at Engineers without Borders Canada, they don’t necessary celebrate or glamorize failure, but they try to maximize what they can learn from those failures. In many ways, these companies have realized that many of the successes that they end up celebrating would not have even been discovered had it not been for one, two, or a hundred failures along the way.
At Nobles, we shouldn’t be scared of failure or try and “forget” failures. Instead, as adults in the Nobles community, we should aim to be more like Rosie’s Great Great Aunt and help students identify, acknowledge, and learn from their failures. This could ultimately help them achieve hundreds of successes that they might not have been able to identify had they found success right off the bat.
To end, here is a quote from Rosie Revere, Engineer. (This happens after Rosie has failed to build a successful “Heli-o-cheese-copter” to help her Great Great Aunt achieve her lifelong desire to fly.)
‘Your brilliant first flop was a raging success! Come on, let’s get busy and on to the next!’ She handed a notebook to Rosie Revere, who smiled at her aunt as it all became clear. Life might have its failures, but this was not it. The only true failure can come if you quit.