Learning To Embrace Failure: The Amateur Scientific Method

An excerpt from Unsuited:  Chapter 4

All of the negative feelings we associate with failure are made up in our minds.  We convince ourselves of the reality of these feelings because of our intense socialization, but we don’t need to be terrified of failure.  We can condition ourselves to see failure in a different light.  We can begin to believe that failure is a process, failure is good, and failure takes us closer and closer to finding our unique voice.  Without failure, you may never tap into what makes you unique and great as an individual.  If you view life as a series of experiments, all leading to the identification and cultivation of your unique purpose, then failure is not only instructive but also necessary.

If I take a scientific method to my life, failure is not only helpful, it is absolutely necessary.  In the scientific method, I start with the premise that I want to accomplish objective X; however, I don’t know the exact path to accomplish objective X, especially if objective X is unique and hasn’t exactly been duplicated before.  Therefore, I will seek input from others who I believe have knowledge of how to obtain objective X.  I soon find out though, that despite their input and knowledge, the path is one that ultimately I must discover on my own.  In order to discover the path I must gain knowledge and experience, and in many cases I need to try things, not knowing if they will work out.  I must fail and learn, fail and grow, learn from my mistakes, gain good judgment from making bad decisions.  Under this model there is really no such thing as failure. There are only results.  This is a scientific process.  If I don’t get the result that I want, from an action that I take, then I just change my approach.  I continue to change my approach until I get the result that I want.

Why are we so scared of this process?  Why do we have no problem applying this model under certain controlled settings (scientific experimentation for one) but resist it in others (like in the planning of our careers and the way that students are taught in schools)? Concerning our societal approach to failure, Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, notes,

Of all the things we are wrong about, this idea of error might well top the list. It is our meta-mistake: We are wrong about what it means to be wrong. Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition.[i]

“Failure and defeat are life’s greatest teachers [but] sadly, most people, and particularly conservative corporate cultures, don’t want to go there,”[ii] says Ralph Heath, author of Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes and Thinking Big. He continues,

Instead they choose to play it safe, to fly below the radar, repeating the same safe choices over and over again. They operate under the belief that if they make no waves, they attract no attention; no one will yell at them for failing because they generally never attempt anything great at which they could possibly fail (or succeed).[iii]

In many cases, the biggest reason that people are terrified of failure is that they haven’t engaged the first step in the scientific method – they have no idea what they actually want.  They don’t even know what they are looking for.  They don’t have a clear, concise and compelling objective that they are seeking. They see the objective in general terms and it usually deals with a base level of material comforts, social position, and community significance.  So they cling to the institutions that they think will best provide these.  The problem is that these institutions rarely provide them with fulfillment.  Failure is valuable and necessary when you evoke the scientific method.  You determine exactly what you want with clarity and then pursue it using trial and error.  Failure is a necessary and valuable part of the process, until your desire is obtained.

[i] Schulz, Katherine. Being Wrong: Adventures In The Margin Of Error. New York: Ecco, 2010. Print. 5.

[ii] Heath, Ralph. Celebrating Failure: The Power Of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes, And Thinking Big. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press, 2009. Print.

[iii] Heath 52.


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