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We Don't Learn from Failure
At least, not as easily as we'd like to think.
Since Carol Dweck's book Mindset became popular, the sports world has been enamored with the growth mindset. Having a growth mindset has become one of the most popular characteristics leaders are looking for in their players and coaches. We want people who embrace failure as a learning opportunity, not as an indictment of who they are.
But learning from failure is much harder than you think.
Recent research from some of the OGs of Carol Dweck's lab shows that despite our best intentions to learn and grow from our mistakes, putting that into practice is pretty tough.
This isn't to say that it's bad to approach failure as an opportunity to learn - having that growth mindset might be helpful for processing your mistakes - but the actual learning we're banking on happening as a result of failure is kinda BS.
In their article, "You think failure is hard? Try learning from it", the authors Lauren Eskreis-Winkler and Ayelet Fischbach present a framework of barriers to learning from failure.
What they found is that, to no surprise, people find failure to be "ego-threatening." In other words, failure threatens our sense of stability, security, and identity, no matter how much we think of it as a "learning opportunity." We all know this intuitively - when we make a mistake, our first instinct is often to try and deny, explain away, excuse, or ignore. That's all pretty normal when you think about the emotional impact of a mistake, no matter how much you want to make it a learning opportunity. We've all been there.
Because failure is unpleasant, people also tend to have an aversion to the experience - they look away, direct their attention elsewhere, and basically, try to keep it moving.
And cognitively, it turns out that the information from failure is much harder to take away than we think.
As coaches, we tend to believe that our players should "just know" when they've screwed up, and we might also believe that they know how to fix it. But if you think about the emotional cocktail above, plus the natural tendency to turn away from failure, and the difficulty of finding the right information to act on... and you end up with someone that's, quite simply, not in a position to learn from failure.
Instead, what people often "learn" from failure is really some unhelpful conclusion about themselves - they have less control than they think, they're inept, or worse.
So what can we do?
The authors offer us a number of practical steps we can take to increase the chance that we learn from failure. Here are a few you can implement today:
Help the person adopt a 3rd party perspective. Ask them what they'd say to someone who made the same mistake.
Directly highlight the important information in the failure. Don't wait for someone else to figure it out on their own - it's much harder than we think from the outside. Instead, find a way to be honest and objective about what happened, using good framing and questions to have a productive conversation.
Actively cultivate an environment that celebrates failure, so that when it happens, it's a little less scary.
There are also some pragmatic mental skills you can teach your athletes (or employees, or anyone else you're leading) to help make this process easier. A favorite is the performance scorecard, in which you review a particular outcome and ask:
What did I do that I want to keep doing?
What did I do that I want to do differently?
Using this nonjudgemental language can help us more objectively approach our own actions and thus more effectively learn from the mistakes we make. Though having a growth mindset is a good starting point for implementing some of these strategies, it's not enough by itself. It turns out that learning from failure is possible, but like many other things in high-performance, it's a skill we need to develop.