Learning opportunities

The importance of our attitude towards failure is rarely acknowledged, but it is a significant relationship that can define how we react to the numerous setbacks and challenges we all face. Failure is not a permanent condition, yet it is also at the root of so many of our anxieties – the belief that when it matters most we are not good enough.

But how are we supposed to understand something that has never been properly explained to us? The schools that we went to didn’t teach us about failure, beyond it being something that we must avoid – at all costs. It is no surprise that on some level we are all scared to fail.

There is one thing that I should probably make clear before you read on; fear of failure is not an inherently bad thing. It is smart to consider the risks and to be cautious if they are deemed too severe. The problem only occurs when opportunities exist, but it remains impossible to take advantage of them; when setbacks lead not to learning, but to blame and defeat.

Our culture’s judgemental attitude towards error undermines our capacity to see the reasons why things went wrong in the first place. We stigmatise mistakes. We are taught that to make an error is to demonstrate ineptness. Where there is failure there is also blame. This is so much more damaging than the act of failure itself.

Failure is rich in learning opportunities as it represents a violation of expectation. The act of failing shows us that the world is in some sense different from the way we imagined it to be. We should not fear failure, but regard it as an inevitable consequence of the mismatch between the complexity of the world and our capacity to understand it. Like it or not, there is no denying that the world is a complex place.

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