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How Does Failure Help Us Grow?

09/23/2014 03:14 pm 15:14:47 | Updated 23 November 2014

"I can tell you... that success doesn't look like an 'A+'. And failure isn't as simple as an 'F'. Failure could be very grey. You might arrive at an event in your life where you think, 'Wow I've succeeded,' and be getting the affirmation from all these outside forces, but if it's not aligned authentically to who you are, it can very much feel like failure," says Marc Eckō, an American fashion designer and entrepreneur who turned a $5,000 investment into a billion dollar fashion and lifestyle company.

He rebrands the art of making mistakes with his observation that "success is merely the hangover of failure." Failure, he argues, is a crucial element in building a unique learning atmosphere for yourself: more failures lead to more lessons which lead to more success.

"I think we're taught in the system that failure is something that you should be ashamed of. Failure is for the dumb kids. You get an 'F'. You get a 'D'. You didn't comply. You didn't create the evidence of your worthiness," he says.

Eckō probably didn't realize it, but he was indirectly referencing the work of mindfulness researchers.


The Lawyers Too Scared to Fail

In my role with Escape the City, I often deal with young professionals who have been excellent at playing by the rules: they've behaved themselves and gotten good grades, which have lead them to good degrees and good jobs. They've been indoctrinated to believe that the 'fixed' mindset is the route to success.

Many of them get an itch to start their own businesses. Yet after being a corporate employee for years, the very mindset that has served them well within the system - 'do what you're told, don't make mistakes' - is the exact mindset that can hold them back when they then try to break out on their own.

Dr Tara Swart is a neuroscience consultant and business coach who was a medical doctor for 7 years and has a PhD in neuroscience. She has co-authored Neuroscience for Leadership: Harnessing the Brain Gain Advantage (available for pre-order here) and her mission is to spread simple, pragmatic neuroscience-based messages that change the way people work, to make the world of work a happier place.

She is on the faculty at MIT as a senior lecturer, guest lectures at Oxford and Stanford and coaches some of the world's most influential Leaders. She also leads The Unlimited Mind, a pioneering neuroscience consultancy that applies neuroscience to create innovative models of Leadership and team coaching.

In her blog post reviewing Carol Dweck's work on fixed mindsets and growth mindsets, she talks about how the Type 1 or Fixed mindset is one that is fearful of making mistakes.

"To fail is shame inducing and painful, as the right ventro-lateral pre-frontal cortex is firing off all sorts of pain signals and the cortisol levels are rising," she explains. "Shame is one of the five basic human emotions that fall into the "avoidance" category - you will do anything not to feel like this."

The demographic that I most associate with this point is the lawyers within our community. They have been trained not to make mistakes - ever. They risk being sacked if they get sloppy with their daily assignments. If they ever dare to err, they are punished, which seems to electrocute them enough to live in a semi-permanent fear of ever messing up again.

As a result, they seem to operate on a cocktail of adrenalin, anxiety and perfectionism - which is only reinforced by their colleagues, bosses, and firms. There are fewer places that seem to embrace the 'fixed mindset' more than the corporate law firms of cities like London and New York.

These ecosystems are future-oriented and dominated by 'thinking' modes as opposed to 'feeling' modes - it's often amazing how disconnected many of the lawyers in our community can be from their own bodies. You ask them what they're feeling and they genuinely won't be able to tell you, because they've learned to switch off their emotional side. Becoming more robotic only strengthens their ability to perform, function, and achieve, while feelings might simply slow them down.

The Entrepreneurs Too Scared to Miss Out

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the startup entrepreneurs who spend their days playing around with code, ping-pong, big ideas and whiteboards. They are driven by passion, vision, and the desire to use their lives to create something larger than themselves. Tapping into their emotional side only helps their ability to stay motivated when resources are tight and dreams are big.

Dr Swart explains that Type 2 or Growth mindsets fear losing out on opportunities: "Type 2 mindset people would feel ashamed if they sat on the side lines whilst someone else ran off with a great idea (fear + shame = cortisol). The way they work, gold nuggets emerge as 'aha' moments of insight that guide towards step changes in innovation (joy/excitement + love/trust = oxytocin)."

"Failure is not bad and it can even be exciting. Excitement is on one of the spectrums in the 'attachment' category of basic human emotions, joy/excitement, the other being love/trust," she explains.

To develop an innovative mindset - the kind of mindset that can turn a business idea into a billion-dollar valuation - she talks about the importance of learning to combine "empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions and rationality to analyse and fit solutions to the context."

Improving the art of combining empathy, creativity, and rationality seems to be a skill that can only be honed through multiple experiments and failures. Most of my most successful entrepreneurial friends have at least one or two projects or business ideas that they've tanked along the way - these failures led them to sharpening their startup intelligence, personal resilience, and creativity. Like any other kind of art, it often takes a hundred drafts to get to the good stuff.

Different ecosystems operate on different belief systems. The growth mindset is encouraged, Dr Swart says, by "re-igniting that curious childhood spirit that can get squelched by formal education and corporate life." The simple technique of taking a meeting via a walk instead of in a conference room can encourage this kind of mindset - this was favored by Steve Jobs and is also now adopted by Mark Zuckerberg.


Going from Fixed to Growth mindset

Both types of mindset operate in reaction to fear - the lawyers fear making mistakes, the entrepreneurs fear missing out. One is not braver than the other - each is simply operating in reaction to different choices of fear - making it hard to glorify one above the other.

The 'fixed mindset' can be rewarded by 'the system' while the 'growth mindset' is what we actually need in order to achieve independent success.

What often seems to help members practice a growth mindset:

  • Practicing mindfulness daily. Read more here.
  • Learning to befriend their shame, as Brené Brown details in this TED talk.
  • Finding a neutral sounding board like a therapist or coach
  • Experimenting, failing, experimenting again, failing again, and each time, learning to fail better.

Dr Tara Swart is CEO of the Unlimited Mind, Faculty at MIT Sloan and lead author of forthcoming book Neuroscience for Leadership: Harnessing the Brain Gain Advantage (available for pre-order here) . The author of this piece, Adele Barlow, is the Education Director at Escape the City.