Failure as friend, not foe

We are hardwired for negativity. Part of this hardwiring is an evolutionary bi-product that helps us scan and respond  to potential dangers around us. The downside of this ‘wiring’ however is that we can have a tendency to see the world through a glass that is half empty – to worry more about what might go wrong than be optimistic around what will go right. A form of this thinking is loss aversion, a term coined by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman to explain a bias in which humans hate losses more than we like gains. This aversion is particularly important when it comes to mobilising failure – for it is this fear of loss that may mean we stick to old ways of doing things rather than seek out new ideas. In order to avoid such an aversion, we need to embrace the risk of failure. Former rugby player Ronan O’Gara highlights this engagement when he states, ‘I realised in time that if you try to copy someone you can only be as good as them. To be better you need to be different, but back then I was still learning and I needed that education.’ Within business, or sport, a competitive advantage is built on innovation – specifically to create a unique edge that your competitors don’t have (or to be ‘different’ as O’Gara suggests). However, you cannot innovate without feeling comfortable with high risk and failure – so if athletes or performers are loss adverse, and fear failure, they can never innovate enough to maximise their competitive edge. 

Psychologist Pippa Grange suggests we need to lean into failure rather than be averse to it: ’Success comes from trying, extending yourself and taking risks, which means that inevitably, you will fail along the way. And you will fail often. Yes: every day of your life you’ll win some and lose some’. Paradoxically, failure provides the seeds to our future growth and success. This was illustrated nicely by former England rugby coach Clive Woodward when he was asked how they won the World Cup in 2003. His answer seemed counterintuitive – ‘Losing. Going through the pain. You find out so much more about yourself and your team when things are not going well. Winning doesn’t happen in a straight line, there are always ups and downs, but as long as the general trend is upwards, setbacks can be good as long as you always learn from them.’ It is this lack of a ‘straight line’ that is important for growth. The ‘wonkiness’ of development therefore is normal, in which our focus, as suggested by educationalist Peter Jarvis, should be on a ‘philosophy of learning’ – specifically, knowing how we prefer to learn and also what are the bespoke markers we are seeking that illustrates this growth. This philosophy therefore acts as a ‘map’, or guide, to navigate the messy swamplands of failing and achievement. 

The question, perhaps, is how do we avoid loss aversion and embrace a philosophy of learning as Jarvis suggests. Psychologist George Kelly may be able to help us here. He once quipped, ‘man can enslave himself with his own ideas and then win his freedom again by reconstruing his life’ (sic). Essentially he was suggesting we all have ways of perceiving the world that may not be very helpful. In order to promote change we need to see things differently. Importantly for performers and sportspeople, such ‘freedom’ may involve reframing what success looks like and means for us. Specifically, it may involve perceiving success as a daily occurrence that resolves around process and growth rather than an outcome or event defined by winning. Success therefore is reconstrued, or reframed, as personal mastery. The tennis player Andre Agassi sums this up well when he remarks, ‘One thing I’ve learned in twenty-nine years of playing tennis: Life will throw everything but the kitchen sink in your path, and then it will throw the kitchen sink. It’s your job to avoid the obstacles. If you let them stop you or distract you, you’re not doing your job, and failing to do your job will cause regrets that paralyze you more than a bad back.’ The crucial element here is that for performers, ‘doing your job’ will involve continuous learning and embracing failure for what it is – feedback on your development, not a judgment on you as a person. 

Worth a read:

Grange, P. (2021). Fear Less: How To Win Your Way In Work and Life. London, Penguin.

Jarvis, P. (2015). “Learning expertise in practice: implications for learning theory.” Studies in the Education of Adults47(1): 81-94.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. NeW York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kelly, G. (1955/1991). The psychology of personal constructs. London, Routledge in association with Centre for Personal Construct Psychology, London, 1991.

O’Gara, R. (2009). Ronan O’Gara: My Autobiography. Reading, Random House Books.

Woodward, C. (2005). Winning! London, Hodder and Stoughton Ltd.