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How Failure Is The Key To Success

As Tom Watson, CEO of IBM said, "If you want to succeed, double your failure rate." This man was absolutely on point! Let's see if this sounds familiar. You go to learn or do something new. You try, try again, make many mistakes and get too frustrated to deal with it. You say 'fuck it' flail your arms and walk away. Although, this may not be your usual response, I think it's fair to say we have all been there.

The Brain and Failure

You may have heard the term 'neuroplasticity' before. In short, it is our brain's ability to change. For our discussion here, we want to consider how we can change our brains for the better and learn more effectively and efficiently. In short, The thing that signals plasticity is the making of errors. In childhood we are exploring and making errors all the time. It's much easier for youth to adapt and learn. For adults, it requires consistent and graduated approaches (like learning an instrument for 30 mins/day) but can still produce very good outcomes. One we immerse ourselves in challenging work, and make mistakes, we are priming our brain to releases epinephrine, acetylcholine and, when we start to get things right, dopamine.

Neurochemicals of Success

To give you some idea of why this is I will briefly some of the functions of each of these three neurotransmitters. Epinephrine (to the left) is released in the brain to help raise alertness. Acetylcholine is used to enhance focus and acuity and dopamine is the 'pleasure' or 'reward' molecule. This trio is what makes the chemical broth that helps our brain alter its structure to accommodate the growth or change you are trying to make.

Keep Failing, Keep Trying

Getting frustrated and walking away is a terrible idea because it as at this point where the likelihood of changes is the strongest. Acetylcholine helps us focus on the error margin (what it is we are doing and what it is we would like to do) then the nervous system tries to change behavior to get it right. When we actually do start to get it right, and make progress, dopamine gets released which allows plasticity to happen very fast. Leveraging frustration and deepening your devotion to the task will create changes in your brain. If you walk away, however, you will rewired your brain to avoid challenges and failure, thus greatly reducing your potential to grow.

Success is In The Brain

In addition, mild frustration while learning or doing a new thing liberates the chemicals that identify the neurons that are responsible for making the mistakes and highlights the pathway required to change them. Then, after a night or two of deep sleep, there have been changes made to the neurons (called synaptic or structural potentiation) and we remember how to perform the new task better. If you're a little confused on why frustration or a negative experience facilitates this kind of growth, just talk a moment to recall all of the bad things people have done to you, all the mistakes you have made, all the lessons learned the hard way, etc. It doesn't take too much energy to bring those to your conscious attention. Why? because remember those things serves a function; it helps you better navigate the world you live in. Negative experiences cue us to map these memories. Also, we can do this when we are surprised by something. A great amount of dopamine is released and we feel rewarded. As you might imagine when we feel rewarded it also feels good, which can be very motivating to get more of whatever is perceived to be providing that feeling.

So, one thing we can do is learn to couple dopamine release to the process of making errors! If we can subjectively associate the experience of 'failure' with something good, we are motivated to continue to do it. It is almost like a mild masochism. As an example, if we know that making errors and 'failing' is what what leads to learning and growth (true) then it is a good excuse to celebrate every time we have a setback in the process of pursuing our goal. We can do this by consciously rewarding ourselves with a quick celebratory 'fuck yeah!' or maybe doing a quick dance. Whatever the means, it's important to learn to revel in your failure to enjoy the full fruits of personal growth. I'll end by those quote from William Whewell which says, "Every failure is a step to success,". He is absolutely right!

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