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Success through failure

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Mistakes, errors, being wrong—no matter what we call it, failure makes us feel uncomfortable. It can paralyze us and even threaten our identity. Biochemically, failure triggers the stress response making testosterone and serotonin levels drop. The physical and psychological impact is intense, so it’s not surprising that so many of us try to avoid failure.

This tendency toward avoidance is, in itself, heavily flawed. The brain works through trial and error, adapting to failures and adjusting for the future. From the brain’s perspective, failure
is an incredible learning opportunity. It serves as an important feedback mechanism to direct and correct our behavior and ultimately improve performance in the future. Without failure, we would not progress.

When I think about my own experience with failure, I can attribute the successes in all areas of my life to having learned how to fail, which for me started with sports. Every win happened because failures also happened. Every failure allowed me, and my teammates, to learn from our mistakes and adjust for the future, ultimately leading to success.

The brain’s detection and adjustment system can be observed by looking at its electrical activity while making choices. Incorrect responses result in a unique brain spike referred to as the error-related negativity. When the spike is big, people tend to do better on subsequent trials compared to when the spike is small. It seems that the spike detects mistakes and then recommends, so to speak, an adjustment for the future.

There are two areas of the brain that are particularly important in generating this spike. The first is at the front of the brain. Known as the medial prefrontal cortex, it is active during behaviours like self-monitoring. The second area is known as the cingulate cortex, which is active during general awareness and when we are keeping a goal in mind. Together, these two areas detect the goal, track how well we are doing in moving toward it and prompt any needed adjustment to align ourselves with that goal when we do screw up.

Although it is clear that our brains are well equipped to use failure to promote future success, it is still hard for most of us to face.

You can practice pushing through the discomfort now by doing a thought exercise. Bring to mind a past mistake or error that you made, one that you haven’t yet resolved. Notice how your body reacts to it. Do you feel the stress response (muscle tension, pit in your throat or stomach, sweaty)? Do you feel defeated (serotonin and testosterone dropping)? Keep facing the failure.

Now, try to look at the failure more objectively. Ask yourself: Why and how did the failure happen? Where did I go wrong? What could I have done differently, even after the fact? How can I adjust my behaviour and learn from that mistake? What are the positives and benefits of such a failure?

Give yourself some time to face your failures and you will start to develop a new relationship with them. By reframing it as a learning opportunity, you are working with the brain’s natural ability to detect and adjust. You are taking advantage of your inherent opportunity to succeed through failure.

Mandy Wintink, PhD is the author of Self-Science: A Guide to the Mind and your Brain’s Potential. Vist her at


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