ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. — “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. -Thomas A. Edison.
Thomas A. Edison, is probably most well-known for his invention of the light bulb. What many don’t know is that he was a spectacular failure.
He truly understood that no great success was achieved without failure along the way. Unfortunately, not everyone will be a prolific inventor like Edison. But, if you work hard enough, you will have plenty of opportunities to fail – if you’re lucky.
Failure is one of one of those uncomfortable, but necessary aspects of being a human being. Psychology lecturer at Harvard University Tal Ben-Shahar frequently tells his students, “Learn to fail or fail to learn.”
Failure, he asserts, is an amazing and transformative opportunity to improve a process, become more resilient or to humble yourself in service of things worth pursuing like an education or career. But if failure is so meaningful and important, why does it get paired with fear and lead us to avoid it at all costs?
Fear of failure happens because our brain is a tool that has evolved over time to keep us safe. It’s kind of like a “story-telling machine.”
Its job is to try to gather information and make a story we feel obliged to pay attention to when that story pops into our head.
Our brain’s objective is to use the story to help us avoid unpleasant emotions like fear or anxiety as well as dangerous situations like walking into a lion’s den.
Sadly, our brain isn’t focused on gathering all the information available accurately and it doesn’t do a good job of thinking long-term. Another way to think about it is, stories about failure are your brain’s signal that you’re trying to do something important and meaningful with your time.
We generally don’t get worried about things we don’t care about after all. Therefore, a key to failing well is relating to these very normal stories in different ways instead of spending all your time and energy avoiding activities and situations that cause them.
Can you think of a time where you were ready to take a risk and try something new at work or at home? Ask someone out on a date? Did you notice your brain telling you stories of how things might not work out in those situations?
Fortunately for us, we don’t have to listen to our brain all the time – we are not defined by the content of our thoughts. If you’d like to get better at noticing your story, rather than being entangled in it, the following suggestions from Steven Hayes, Professor of Psychology at the University of Nevada, may help.
First, take a big breath and remind yourself that this is just a story. Observe how your story is simply just made up of pictures, words, and sounds. Despite what your brain is telling you, the story does not have to be treated as a series of threats or orders. Second, instead of focusing on how true or accurate your story is, ask yourself what do you gain if you listen or buy into this story? Does it help you be a better person? Does it help you connect with people you care about or take effective action? If you’re not answering “yes” to these questions and you’ve noticed this story hanging around before like a bad record on repeat then see if you can unhook from the story’s impact on you by trying the following techniques.
To unhook from your story try placing this phrase in front of difficult thoughts—”I’m having the thought that …” To practice, try thinking a difficult thought (e.g., “I’ll bomb this important briefing.”) a few times in a row, observe how you feel and what other thoughts or images pop into your head. Then try thinking the same thought but with the new phrase in front of it a couple of times in a row. Notice a difference? If that works well for you, try these other strategies: Say the thoughts in ultra-slow motion, repeat the difficult thought over and over again for a whole minute, sing the thought to the tune of your favorite song or say the thought in a silly voice. Even though these strategies sound funny and odd, just remember what can happen when you take you story too seriously.
The more you can get a little separation from the unhelpful stories our brain sometimes tells us, the better we can learn to risk and accept failure in service of something important. This is a key component of resilience! If you’d like to learn more about struggling less with fears and worries about failure, then please consider reading “Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” by Steven Hayes and Spencer Smith or “The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT” by Russ Harris and Steven Hayes.