Way back in 2014 I wrote about a growing movement among entrepreneurs. In 42 cities across the world founders would meet for “F***Up Nights,” which are just what they sound like — an opportunity for those on the difficult path of starting a business to share their biggest flops and failures. Since that story, these nights have spread to 185 cities.
Sharing your most embarrassing stumbles doesn’t immediately sound like buckets of fun, so what’s behind the unlikely popularity of these events? Community is certainly part of it. Failure feels worse when you think you’re uniquely prone to it. But so is learning. There are few better ways to learn than trying, falling on your face, and vowing to never do that particular thing again.
The unexpected popularity of F***Up Nights demonstrates the immense potential to learn from failure. But science shows that most of us miss out on a big part of the benefit of our inevitable screw-ups. Research from Lauren Eskreis-Winkler and Ayelet Fishbach of University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business has shown that, even when the incentives are high, people have a tendency to put their heads in the sand and not learn from their mistakes.
Thankfully, the pair’s work also highlights ways to avoid letting your ego and emotions get in the way of learning from failure. UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center recently dug deep into these findings, which show both what blocks people from making the most of their missteps and how to overcome these common mental blocks.
1. You make it all about you.
Ego is the enemy of learning. Admitting you’re wrong hurts your sense of yourself as competent and smart, but it helps you correct false beliefs, seek out novel information, and expand your horizons. So how do you ensure you don’t let your ego get in the way of self-improvement? One technique is to try and put some mental distance between yourself and the error you’re trying to learn from.
“This involves thinking of your personal experience from the outside perspective of a neutral third party, asking, ‘Why did Jeremy fail?’ instead of ‘Why did I fail?’ While that might sound cheesy, it seems to work,” explains Greater Good. You can read more about the science behind this strange but effective technique here and here.
2. You keep them to yourself.
“People tend to hide their own failures, out of a sense of shame,” observes Greater Good. But one of the best ways to learn from your mistakes is to turn them into inspirational stories for the benefit of others.
Just like inspirational speakers spin past mistakes into motivational gold, framing your errors this way turns miscalculations into useful life lessons, research shows. “High school students who shared failures with middle school students went on to get better grades than those who didn’t reframe their failures; middle schoolers who gave advice to elementary school students later spent more time on homework,” reports Greater Good.
You don’t have to be a formerly struggling student to put this insight to use. Events like F****Up Nights formalize the process, but even just informally sharing your hard-earned lessons with entrepreneur friends (or online) will help you tease out and solidify the lessons learned from some of your most challenging experiences.
3. You repress your feelings.
Does failing feeling good? No, it feels awful. That’s not fun, but it is necessary. Pain is nature’s way of encouraging us to learn not to do something. So when you repress the pain, you also repress the learning. Letting yourself really feel your failures is essential if you want them to make you wiser in the long run. So no running away from your feelings or dulling them with substances or distractions.
“Sadness seems to improve memory and judgment, which can help us to succeed in the future; regret can actually sharpen motivation,” Greater Good points out.
4. You forget your why.
When you make a mistake, it’s easy to get caught up in a loop of beating yourself up and second-guessing each step you took. Reflection and unhappiness is part of the process of coping with failure (see above), but an obsessive focus on the details of your screw-up doesn’t actually help you pick yourself up and apply whatever you’ve learned from the experience.
What does? Focusing on why you put yourself in a position to fail in the first place. “Holding a clear long-term goal in mind — such as becoming a doctor or learning to sail — can help us to tolerate short-term failure and override information-avoidance,” explains Greater Good. As Simon Sinek might remind us, understanding your why is a great way to increase your resilience in the face of life’s many inescapable setbacks.
5. You beat yourself up.
Again, failure isn’t supposed to feel great. But as explained above, beating yourself up about your missteps is demotivating and distracts you from extracting valuable lessons from failure. Sure you should reflect on what went wrong, but you shouldn’t waste energy ruminating endlessly on your shortcomings.
Instead, research suggests you should try some self-compassion. “Many recent studies suggest that you’re more likely to grow if you speak kindly to yourself, as a loved one might speak to you, in the wake of failure,” claims Greater Good.
Also, rather than viewing failure as a testament to your personal weaknesses, remind yourself that error is a human universal. “It’s not a question of if you’ll fail — it’s when. The only real question you need to answer is what you can learn from the experience,” the article sagely notes.
A F****Up Night is designed to transform failure from an isolating and shameful instance of personal weakness into a community-building learning opportunity. But you don’t need a group of like-minded (and equally fallible) founders to view failure this way. You just need the research-backed mindset adjustments and simple techniques mentioned above. After all, failure is a terrible thing to waste.
Failure can trigger a torrent of painful emotions—hurt, anger, shame, even depression. As a result, most of us try to avoid mistakes; when they do happen, we try to sweep them under the rug. This natural tendency is heightened in companies whose leaders have, often unconsciously, institutionalized a fear of failure. They structure projects so that no time or money is available for experimentation, and they award bonuses and promotions to those who deliver according to plan.
But organizations don’t develop new capabilities—or take appropriate risks—unless managers tolerate failure and insist that it be openly discussed. The psychologist Carol Dweck identified two basic mindsets with which people approach their lives: “fixed” and “growth.” People who have a fixed mindset believe that intelligence and talents are largely a matter of genetics; you either have them or you don’t. They aim to appear smart at all costs and see failure as something to be avoided, fearing it will make them seem incompetent.
A fixed mindset limits the ability to learn because it makes individuals focus too much on performing well. By contrast, people who have a growth mindset seek challenges and learning opportunities. They believe that no matter how good you are, you can always get better through effort and practice. They don’t see failure as a sign of inadequacy and are happy to take risks. When making hiring and promotion decisions, leaders often put too much emphasis on performance and not enough on the potential to learn.
Over time, Egon Zehnder, a global executive search firm, had developed a sophisticated means of evaluating candidates that considered not only their past achievements but also their competencies. However, it found that in numerous instances, candidates who looked equally good on paper performed differently on the job. Why? A partner at the firm, Karena Strella, and her team believed the answer was individuals’ potential for improvement.
After a two-year project that drew on academic research and interviews, they identified four elements that make up potential: curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination. They developed interview questions to get at these elements, along with psychometric measures applied via questionnaires. This new model now plays a key role in the search firm’s assessments of job candidates. Egon Zehnder has found that high-potential candidates perform better than their peers with less potential, thanks to their openness to acquiring new skills and their thirst for learning.
It is common for people to ascribe their successes to hard work, brilliance, and skill rather than luck; however, they blame their failures on bad fortune. This phenomenon, known as the attribution bias, hinders learning (see “Why Leaders Don’t Learn from Success,” HBR, April 2011). In fact, unless people recognize that failure resulted from their own actions, they do not learn from their mistakes. In a study we conducted with Chris Myers, we asked participants to work on two different decision-making tasks spaced one week apart.
Each task had a correct solution, but only a few people were able to identify it. We found that participants who took responsibility for doing poorly on the first activity were almost three times as likely to succeed on the second one. They learned from their failure and made better decisions as a result. Leaders can use the following methods to encourage others to find the silver lining in failures, adopt a growth mindset, focus on potential, and overcome the attribution bias.
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