“We learn from failure, not from success!” Although these words presented in Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula seem to be common knowledge, success and failure may be more closely linked. Thus, can we learn from success as well?
“We learn from failure, not from success!” Although these words presented in Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula seem to be common knowledge, success and failure may be more closely linked. Thus, can we learn from success as well? A recent paper in the journal Psychological Science attempted to answer how people learn from both failure and success.
The Importance of Failure
Learning from failure is important because we benefit from seeing what went wrong in athletic performance, the workplace, and relationships. In general, we probably don’t seek out failure to gain learning experiences and in some circumstances failure would have dire consequences. For example, we probably don’t want to learn from failed manned space missions.
Thus, we have to look at our successes for learning experiences to avoid a future disaster. For example, an Olympic lifter who barely completes a competition snatch can still learn from his or her performance to improve the next lift.
The researchers in the Psychological Science paper described three mechanisms for how we can look at success and failure. Success and failure utilize each mechanism more or less and in different ways.
- Self-Explanation: analyzing our behavior and trying to find reasons why we failed or succeeded.
- Data Verification or Counterfactual Thinking: brainstorming different ways we could have approached the problem and how we might affect the outcome.
- Feedback: determining whether there is success or failure (first step) and then stating what we learned and what we will do to change in the future.
Mechanism #1: Self-Explanation
In failure, self-explanation can be blocked by explaining away our failure to some external event and in turn, we do not focus on what we can do better. For example, in losing to a competitor I might look at all of the support gear and simply stop analyzing my role and focus on his competitive advantage.
Thus, I lose the ability to be self-reflective in that I am focused on external reasons. This focus on external reasons has benefits in that I don’t damage my self-esteem in the loss (this mechanism is quite useful in keeping us from being depressed). However, it makes me lose the ability to focus on what I might do better.
If we can get past the immediate mechanism to focus on external reasons why we did poorly, then we can start looking at how to improve. The researchers mention the best strategy is to focus on what we did well, in addition to what did not go well, as this can help buffer the self-reflective process. That is, our self-esteem is protected by placing our failure in context of what we did well in the situation.
In success, self-explanation is easier as we can focus on how we succeeded. Our explanation comes to us easier in that we can’t damage our self-esteem (because we succeeded*).
We can focus on minor technical issues of what we might do better. For example, I might focus on the snatch attempt where I barely finished the lift. “My second pull might have been better, but luckily my third pull under the bar was quick enough.”
Mechanism #2: Data Verification and Counterfactual Thinking
In success, counterfactual thinking can be difficult. I succeeded, so why would I look at alternatives? If we take the attitude that what we did is “good enough,” it makes it tough to learn from successes.
Questions, such as “what might I do better?” can be helpful to break through the problems with counterfactual thinking. There is probably a fine line between enjoying your success without focusing on what went wrong and over focusing on mistakes. The right balance can help us learn from our successes.
Mechanism #3: Feedback
In success and failure, the feedback mechanism is needed to cement what has been learned. That is, we must focus on what we can do better, as well as plan out how we will use this information.
In the example above, I could use the information that my second pull was not quick enough and focus on that part of my movement the next time. If it is a fundamental problem, then I will create a program where I can get better at it. The feedback system is where we will take what we have learned from self-reflection and counterfactual thinking and put in a plan of action.
What Can We Learn From Success?
The researchers found that after a failed experience, improvement takes place when we focus on both correct and erroneous actions.
Focusing on what we did correctly can soften the blow from the information on what we did not do so well. After a successful experience, we learn best from focusing on what we did wrong. After success, we may feel safe to discuss errors more freely without having to protect our self-worth.
Our successes can be analyzed to ensure future success and to make sure we are still learning from these experiences. If you are too successful and not learning from your experiences, go do some karaoke or some other experience where you fail and can learn from it.
Furthermore, we can ask ourselves different questions after success and failure:
- After success, we can ask, “What did I do wrong and how can I make it better next time.”
- After failure, we can ask, “What did I do well and what did I do not so well? How will I change the next time?
*Footnote: For people who are depressed, success is often attributed to external reasons, such as, “I was lucky, today.” External focus for success and internal focus for failure is hypothesized to be one potential cause of depression. These feedback mechanisms may not work the same for people with psychological illness.
1. Ellis, Shmuel, Bernd Carette, Frederik Anseel, and Filip Lievens. 2014. “Systematic Reflection Implications for Learning From Failures and Successes.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 23 (1): 67–72. doi:10.1177/0963721413504106.
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