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Each week on Two Guys on Your Head, Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke, explore different aspects of human behavior and the brain.

How to Learn From Failure

Failure is a scary word that carries a very negative connotation: “I’m a failure.” “He’s a failure.” “I don’t want to be a failure.” 

The word failure arouses emotional responses that we’d usually rather avoid.  What about the word success  The thought of success arouses images of comfort, ease and satisfaction.  Why?  It’s because of something in our brains. 

We’re wired with a dopamine reward system that releases positive or negative chemical affect in our brains depending upon the success or failure of our efforts.  Success feels good, while failure feels bad.  So we tend to seek success and avoid failure. It’s simple.  

But hang on a minute and let the Two Guys on Your Head, Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke, tell you about a function of failure that is too often overlooked and discredited: Failure is a learning tool. 

How can you determine how much exertion to expend toward reaching a particular goal if you’ve never failed at something?  You might just run yourself into the ground trying to avoid failure.  Better to let failure experiences happen and serve to help you gauge your efforts. 

Failure is a learning mechanism, like training wheels on a bicycle.  Our little mistakes serve to build up a framework of experience that allows us to more proficiently navigate our lives.

The fear of failure, which can be daunting and great, is a very challenging obstacle to overcome.  Fear of failure can be immobilizing.  When we legislate ourselves rigidly against the negative feelings aroused by the experience of a mistake, we are short-changing ourselves. Failure-driven learning mechanisms are not being utilized because our society reinforces a desire to avoid mistakes.

Rebecca McInroy is an award-winning show creator, host, and executive producer for KUT, KUTX, and KUT.ORG.
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