This is a guest post from the brilliant Alastair Arnott, author of Positive Failure
From day one, everyone wins. Everyone succeeds. In our children’s sports days, even the loser gets a prize. In our exams, we didn’t fail, the test was flawed, in our own lives we twist, defend and pretend to make ourselves look the best we can possibly be. Failure is to be avoided? Yes?
What happens when you get it right… Nothing. Getting it right is boring. Being perfect is dull. We know that we all get it wrong and make mistakes in the abstract, so why does it hurt so much? A heterodoxy is the opposite of orthodox, a part of society that is undiscussed and undisputed, and in our western society, sadly, failure seems to have earn’t itself a key place as no one is interested… It is why it holds the key to every success you will ever experience.
The heterodoxy around failure goes against everything we have achieved thus far in human progression, not only is it getting in the way of our evolution, I argue that it is forcing us backwards in terms of intelligence.
Could it be that failure has maintained a stealthy heterodoxy due to the emotional attachment that we seem to have over it and the negative affect of comparing oneself to others? By setting a pattern that mistakes and failure are negatives – have we created a false doctrine? An unquestioning attitude, that failure is negative and to be avoided completely? I believe so.
I argue that failure itself can be positive and, in the right circumstances, can be one of the key drivers of human development and evolution. Take our children for example, it is essential that our children in some way or another, fail. If we protect children from failure we weaken their self-esteem and do not improve it. We may as well humiliate, pacify, thwart them and then abandon them. Seligman’s research has shown that without failure we can weaken self-esteem.
For some bizarre reason we seem to regard our default human state as being correct or ‘getting it right’. When we slip up, it leaves us feeling stupid, ashamed, it doesn’t happen often, right? It is completely the opposite. Our natural human default is failure. We are on this planet for a short while and then our organs will fail and we will die. We make thousands, maybe millions of mistakes and we fail our way forward as we have done for thousands of years.
If we look back through history, I believe that the mistakes and failures of mankind are far more interesting than our successes. Research has shown that twelve hundred years before Rene Descartes penned his famous ‘I think therefore I am’ , the philosopher Saint Augustine wrote ‘fallor ergo sum’ or ‘I err therefore I am.’ We are aware that error, failure and being wrong are central to our development. We just aren’t using them anywhere near as much as we should….yet.
We can have interesting reactions to failure when, unavoidably, we come into unprepared frontal and full-contact with it. It is important to gain an understanding of the defences we employ, that in many instances are now redundant, de-habilitating and holding us back. I argue that we all subconsciously want to be right, all the time.
Let’s take a minute and imagine a world where this happens.
Every endeavour succeeds as well as you thought it would, every obstacle is overcome easily and any problem is immediately solved. To me, this feels uncomfortable and frightening. Something ironically wouldn’t be ‘right’ if this was reality. Many of us overcome huge challenges and difficulties before we even leave the womb. We subconsciously strive to keep our image of ourselves positive yet we all know that everyone makes mistakes and nobody’s perfect. So why do we defend, pretend and, in some cases, twist the truth to make ourselves look good?
For many years it has been thought that competition ensures the best outcome. When we are in competition, by the very definition of the word, we are protective. This is a direct extension of the failure heterodoxy; we hold our best ideas close and become very attached to them. What if they fail? Where do we turn?
What would happen if we embraced our own vulnerability rather than shunned it? We all know that we are not perfect, so why do we act as if this is the case? Research has shown that openness and connectivity may in the end be far more valuable to innovation than purely competitive mechanisms.
Throughout history, civilisations have built walls around their cities, towns and ideas, and throughout history time after time, the walls have crumbled, fractured physically and mentally and they have or will eventually fail. Writing was once restricted from the common people by monks, as it was thought it would cause mass anarchy. The exception to this is nature that has very few boundaries. From bee’s pollinating flowers to the remarkable mutually beneficial relationships across species, the achievements and successes of nature far outweigh our own. I believe that this is because nature is prepared to fail.
Research by Steven Johnson explains how environments that block or limit those new combinations by punishing experimentation, obscuring certain branches of possibility, making the current state so comfortable that no one bothers to explore the edge, will generally generate fewer innovations than environments that encourage exploration.
Alastair Arnott is an author, explorer, educator and change agent. He believes more opportunities for failure in school would have given you an edge. In his book Positive Failure, Arnott argues that failure is a natural and powerful psychological force that, when used properly, can shape and inform success. “Error, failure, and being wrong are central to our development,” he says. “We just aren’t using them as much as we should….yet.” Arnott is on a mission to change this.