Singapore students are so fearful of failure that 78% agreed or strongly agreed with “When I am failing, this makes me doubt my plans for the future” (from the PISA test results).
72% of Singapore students also worry about what others would think of them if they fail — the 9th highest score among the economies studied in the PISA test.
While it is normal to worry about failing, why should we stop freaking out about it?
1. Understanding different types of failure.
Being aware of the different types of failure helps us address the types which are unproductive, and deliberately choose the types which are worth pursuing.
Yes, there are types of failure worth pursuing!
Diagram 1: Types of failure
Not all failures are equal.
I found Diagram 1 above a useful framework to distinguish different types of failure (although I would not have categorised them under ‘blameworthy’ or ‘praiseworthy’).
Failures on the left side of Diagram 1 (such as inattention or inability) could be due to issues with executive functioning.
People with certain special needs often struggle with these failures to show expected behaviour like neurotypical people.
While I disagree with Diagram 1 that these failures are blameworthy, these failures do disrupt the lives of the people involved. The failures also cause a great deal of shame and doubt to them and their families.
Nevertheless, facing these failures on a regular basis doesn’t stop some people from trying differently or iterating to overcome their failures.
In fact, their persistence and perseverance often extend to actively seeking and overcoming different set of failures on the right side of Diagram 1.
Their ability to find ways which no one else have explored (or further developed) become their strengths.
Hence while we attempt to address the left side failures which get in the way of our life goals, this should not discourage us from actively pursuing right side failures with the intention to learn, iterate and improve to get closer to our aims.
2. Failure is an opportunity to learn how to do things more intelligently.
One of the best examples of someone who pursued failure on the right side of Diagram 1 is Thomas Edison.
Thomas Edison repeatedly failed thousands of times in order to develop a commercially-viable light bulb.
He also had 1,000 or so patents to his name and had multiple market failures which are lovingly celebrated by his admirers even today.
Why did Thomas Edison succeed even though he failed more often than the average person?
It is his perspective and drive, captured in a selection of his quotes, that Singaporeans can learn from to overcome our base instinct to freak out over failure:
“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”
“Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless.”
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
“What you are will show in what you do.”
“There’s a way to do it better – find it.”
“Your worth consists in what you are and not in what you have.”
3. How we deal with failure determines how antifragile we are.
Failure is an essential part of life. Going through failure (errors and mistakes too) gives us new information we otherwise wouldn’t have if we did everything right.
According to author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who wrote a highly-recommended book Antifragile, “Someone who has made plenty of errors—though never the same error more than once—is more reliable than someone who has never made any.”.
He also highlighted the difference between:
– the fragile where “the mistakes are rare and large when they occur, hence irreversible” versus
– the antifragile “where the mistakes are small and benign, even reversible and quickly overcome” with the plus that mistakes are “rich in information”.
“If you want to become antifragile, put yourself in the situation “loves mistakes”—to the right of “hates mistakes”—by making these numerous and small in harm.”
Someone once told me that failure = learning, so instead of saying “I have failed”, we can tell ourselves “I have learnt!”.
By changing our perspective, we realise we have options on how we can choose to respond, via objectively evaluating, introspective learning, reassessing your strategy and giving our tasks another (more informed) try.
We shouldn’t blanket-shame all failures, because it is in the failures where we grow our executive functioning skills and discover what kind of people we really are.
We could and should definitely change our mindsets to embrace failure (in the right context) where we actively seek, celebrate and maximise failures as part of our learning journey.
Do you see failure as making you fragile, or antifragile?
Feature photo: scrum.org