Why Failure is a Hoax


Most of us think failure is real—even though it’s not. It turns out humans—all on their very own– fabricated failure, plain and simple.

So then, how did this failure hoax ever gain traction? After all, it’s not as though babies think they failed to sleep through the night or failed to roll over by some arbitrary date.

Yet, at one point in our lives, most of us “buy” into the idea that we can and have failed. And then, we spend much of our life dreading and avoiding more failure, or we feel miserable about all those prior times we thought we had failed.

At what age . . . do we start thinking we can fail?

Unfortunately, both scenarios contribute to a lot of never-ending stress—that wouldn’t be there if we didn’t believe in failure. So, who’s invested in keeping this hoax going?

For starters—advertisers. It should come as no surprise that advertisers perpetuate our fear of failure all the time. Marketing campaigns are intentionally designed to make us believe that we may fail at being healthy or smart or safe or anything else we think we could fail at –unless, of course, we now buy whatever they’re selling.

Ordinary people can also, unknowing, perpetuate the failure hoax. That’s because if a co-worker failed at (whatever)—but I didn’t–I may now momentarily feel better about myself.

If so, my brain may come to view failure as something that’s beneficial to me, that is . . . until I’m the one who can’t do whatever.

But worst of all, believing in failure clouds our brain’s ability to see acts of courage. How is that possible?

Well, ponder how we might view an action differently if failure isn’t an option. For example, did we fail to make the soccer team, or did we show courage by trying out, knowing that not everyone would be chosen? Did we fail to convince our boss of a new plan, or did we show courage for presenting a completely different solution?

And now, consider how those contrasting views result in different, long-term brain wiring.

The brain that sees failure will likely activate need-to-play-it-safe circuitry (to avoid possible failure) whenever presented with new opportunities. But the brain that sees courage will likely activate safe-to-take-risks circuitry for those very same opportunities. Down the line, which of those brain profiles ensures someone will discover his or her passion and explore new ideas and experiences?

Also, if we think failure is real, then what about the concept of timing? For example, just maybe, we didn’t get the promotion because we still need to acquire certain skills and, therefore, will be better at the position at another time. Or, maybe there’s a completely different job—one that we’d enjoy even more than the one we hoped we’d get. But the timing for that isn’t quite right (i.e. the other job isn’t open at this moment).

If we believe in failure, then we must also think that we’re the only person in the world with a story to unfold. Here, we don’t even consider that, perhaps, we didn’t get the job because . . . it was someone else’s turn. It could be a simple as that.

Believing in failure also means we’re ignoring how the brain works. Since there’s a never-ending overflow of information flooding our brain at every second, the brain is always challenged with, “What should I pay attention to right now?”

Well, we’re more likely to catch our brain’s attention when something doesn’t go as planned. When that happens, we’re given an opportunity to reflect, re-calibrate, re-do which (in terms of what’s happening in the brain) now wraps myelin around neurons—a process that’s quite beneficial to our brain.

Yet, we’re going to bypass all those great myelin-wrapping opportunities and ways to improve our neural circuitry if we go straight to, “I failed.” That single thought “turns off” the cortex, the part of our brain where we see options.  And now, our lower centers of the brain–the part that triggers fight, flight, and freeze responses—is firing away.

Yes, some people try to soften the idea of failure by saying: “It’s okay to fail.” Or: “Failure is good because it motivates us to try harder.” Yet, such thinking still perpetuates the belief that failure even exists and, again, ignores how the brain works.

Namely, if we’ve stored memories of failing, then just hearing the word “fail” can be enough to trigger a stress response.  And once that happens, good luck thinking any other part of a message is going to register.

Of course, if there’s no failure, then there also can be no success. We can’t have one—and not the other. Yet, it’s interesting how many people may consider giving up failure, while vigorously defending that success, though, is very real.

Keep in mind: Tossing aside failure and success is not the same as saying we now forego feeling emotions. Hardly.

Once more, from the brain’s perspective, emotions are neither good nor bad. Rather, all emotions are merely sensations. We’re supposed to feel them, and then . . .  they’re supposed to pass. So, we wouldn’t want to skip this part of an experience, especially since emotions are what often then motivate us to take certain action.

However, instead of passing, there’s one emotion that often burrows inside us. That emotion is shame.

So, if our brain has failure circuitry, there’s a good chance that shame is also part of that wiring. And since “neurons that wire together, fire together,” every time we think we failed, we’ll now also feel shame.  Or, every time we feel shame, we’ll now also think we failed somehow. Sounds exhausting—and certainly not like a brain wired for an upbeat, positive life.

Okay. Suppose we do decide there’s no failure and no success. Then what? Well, now we can view life as a never-ending series of opportunities to learn.

Wow. Think how freeing—and life-changing—that single thought might be.

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