What you can learn from failure

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Good New Year’s resolutions can make sense, but many fail. When this happens, mechanisms are triggered in the body that prevents learning from failure. With the right strategies, however, you can counteract this – and move forward through loss.

No matter if it’s a good resolution or a business idea: If you fail, you hurt your ego, and your self-image is scratched. The feeling of failure triggers the production of cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline in the body, explains Munich psychologist Dieter Frey – stress hormones that are supposed to enable people to flee or fight. Psychologically, these chemical processes are accompanied by heart palpitations, high blood pressure, insomnia and anxiety in the event of failure.

The fact that failure acts on the ego and self-image like a threat was also shown by international studies. This effect leads to people mostly trying to block out instead of learning from failure: One would like to forget the negative experience, if not repress it quickly. But those who feel threatened in their existence find it difficult to reflect and tend to stylize themselves as victims.

Tips for dealing better with failure
If you manage to get out of this blocking behaviour, however, you can learn a lot from failure and thus move forward, says Dieter Frey. Ideally, you ask yourself the following questions: Was it me? Was it due to other external factors? Was it a lack of effort, a lack of talent?

Writing down the failure or talking about it with other people is also recommended in research. Both are methods of dealing with loss and learning from it for the future. In a sense, one becomes an expert on failure. For such a root cause analysis to be possible at all, however, the right mindset is needed, according to Frey. An important keyword here is resilience: successful people usually don’t let things get them down. They can get the best out of every situation, including defeats.

Positive culture of failure
Frey spoke with accident victims for his resilience research. He found that those who believe they can influence their recovery recover faster. However, an open question in research is to what extent such an attitude can be learned. In any case, a more positive social error culture would be helpful.

In Germany and Austria, there is generally a strong urge toward perfectionism. Frey says this leads to shame when mistakes are made, and there is a great deal of schadenfreude among fellow human beings. The USA, for example, can serve as a role model. People also view failure positively – because at least they have tried something. Frey also cites an example from corporate culture. Some companies now have the philosophy that one or more suggestions for improvement must come from every mistake. This can also be applied to oneself: “With every mistake, I try to do better next time.”

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