On Failure

What are the effects of failure on behaviour? There is now evidence that success, whether properly attained, attained with the aid of chance, or a random mix of both, will lead to overconfidence. The opposite has also been proved: failure causes involuntary shrink-back, as in the case of someone who fails in some project or aspect and therefore shrinks back and away from more attempts. The good news is that although shrink-back is initially automatic, it can be jail-broken with new, conscious efforts.

First off, according to prospect theory, we value risk according to its potentialities, not the actual risk levels. This is is like saying project A is not as risky as project B because I ‘perceive’ them to be ‘that’ risky. This makes sense. Estimating correct levels of risk is an a priori impossibility, while making miscalibrated judgments about potential values of risky choices is both possible and in an irrational way, logical: if two people consider an objectively medium-level risk project, one may perceive it as high-risk and the other low-risk depending on where they are coming from.

What I mean by this is whether one person is assessing this project from a background of failures or successes. More specifically, if someone has a high failure to success ratio per 100 attempts, he is more likely to assess a medium-risk project as riskier than it actually is. Since in shrink-back, he doesn’t want to take new action, avoids decision-making, procrastinates, daydream to escape, & feels life is generally hopeless, in the prospect-theory variation of shrink-back, he may take action, may not shrink back from new projects, but also may not take on as many projects as he should have optimally taken on. In short, he becomes rather paranoid about outcomes and see more risk when there is less, in fact. It is a flight response, when fight does not work.

Of course I am not saying we are imperfect, (or perfect, either). I am saying we have an imperfect understanding of certain imperfections that need to be consciously adjusted with our perfections so as to create a balanced view of things—“a view of things as they are” as it is reported to have been said by prophet Muhammed (SAWS). That is, there is an intangible switch that is involuntarily turned on when we face failures—and my contention that it can be voluntarily reswitched again.

To illustrate, once when I was overwhelmed by cascades of failures despite my best and creative efforts, and as failures kept piling up, I began to have an increasingly depressed view of the world, imagining that it will continue to get worse, and with my self-image having been shattered by the severity and scope of my failures, I became aware of a certain switch clicking in my psyche that caused me to temporarily lose interest in activity, planning, and proactivity.

As I was debating with my alter-ego whether this state of affairs should continue given my background as a maverick (self-proclaimed of course), and considering the implications of the research on the inverted links between overconfidence and failure, I decided to experiment upon myself. My primary task was undoing the switch so as to go back to my proactivity and confidence. Could it be done and if so, how fast and how?

I am pleased to say that after a bit of experimenting I realized that, at least for me, that conscious reswitch was pushing myself harder and taking on more projects despite my failures, going after rather impossible solutions despite negativities and huge odds, solving problems creatively, not with sheer effort only, and keeping at it even when it seemed as if the sky would fall: the exact motivation in cases of failure is always failure itself, and if failures do not scare you, you can always reset your confidence to factory default again.

But before I go on, I am aware that my solution seems paradoxical: how can I do more if I can not do at all? The trick in this lies in realizing that a switch has been clicked, and that it is the brain’s natural defense mechanism. Unaware of the switch, I could probably remain inactive or pessimistic for a long period of time before some random event leads me to a success that wakes me up to my potentialities again; while if I am aware of this switch, I have an extra layer of soothing information that enables me to see my inactivity and pessimism as an automatic condition that I can reverse with some more effort and insight.

Again, I am not saying you should bypass natural defense mechanisms. My point is, that when failures pile up, this shrink-back state is a good chance to take a step back from it all and ask yourself whether certain activities or projects or plans indeed are worth implementation? or the exact reasons for the ongoing failure: is there something wrong with the way you conduct the project? should you change something? It is scratch-your-head and ask-what-should-I-do-differently moment, which is of course natural and necessary. Only, what I discovered is that after you take your time and re-think your strategy, instead of lingering in the darkness of failure-based depression, you could always achieve much more than before since, quite logically, you are motivated not to fail again and therefore will try a little harder, a little more, and greatly different compared to before.

Hong Ying Ming, (1573-1620) a Chinese sage says in this regard: “Do not fret when things do not go as you wish them to; do not rejoice when all is smooth sailing; do not expect stable times to last long; and be not dismayed when difficulties crop up at the beginning of your ventures.”

One thought on “On Failure

  1. “車到山前必有路,船到橋頭自然直。” Failure is a test of courage and intelligence. A coward sees it as a barrier, while a brave person treats it as a stepping stone.

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