Here’s something we all know about failing, it’s a process with an ending that we all want to avoid. Failure, contrary to popular belief, isn’t just an undesirable ending, It’s also a terrible beginning. It easily metastasizes into guilt, shame, anxiety, self-doubt, and depression; all of which inevitably lead to more failure. But what is the process of failing exactly, and how do you find out how and why you’re engaged in it?
The human mind is evolutionarily attuned to failure since it can equate to the potential for danger. Therefore failure is much more noticeable to us than success. So while you may feel like you are failing in one area of life at any given time, it’s likely that you are also succeeding in some other area. Maybe things aren’t so great in your love life, but you’re doing a great job with your fitness regimen. Maybe your career isn’t where you want it to be, but you’ve cultivated amazing relationships.
So what separates success and failure? Since failing is a process, then it stands to reason that so is succeeding. At a very high level it comes down to one thing: differing patterns of action. A pattern of action that yields undesirable results is a failure. A pattern of action that yields the result you want is successful. Looking at what makes you successful is a great way to figure out how to avoid failure.
There are at least three implications inherent in the sentence: “A pattern of action that gives you the results you want is successful.” Let’s look at them one by one.
- A pattern of action that yields the results you want is successful – If succeeding in life were as simple as repeating one successful action over and over, the world would be a much simpler place. As it is, an adaptable pattern of action is necessary to reach your goals. Whenever you are successful it is because you are flexible enough to adapt to the ever changing situations you are engaged in.
- A pattern of action that yields the results you want is successful – When you achieve success, it is always because you take action. Success without effort is called luck, and it’s not something one can meaningfully strive for. Working towards something actively is the only way to actually reach it.
- A pattern of action that yields the results you want is successful – Taking action is only useful when it is towards a specific goal. This means that a measurable goal of some kind is built into the definition of success. Moreover that goal must be something you want which is of value to you.
“If you learn from defeat, you haven’t really lost.” – Zig Ziglar
So what does this say about failing and how you can identify why it’s happening? Since we’ve already looked at the elements of success, let’s look at the definition of failure using the same framework:
- A pattern of action that yields undesirable results is a failure – Some patterns of action work better than others. When trying to succeed it’s important to recognize when the patterns you find yourself engaging in are not working, and to make changes to those patterns appropriately. Change is the key word here: If you are failing and refusing to make changes, your failure is assured. It is also important to view failing as an opportunity. Any failed strategy can be safely ruled out and learned from if one has the openness and flexibility to change.
- A pattern of action that yields undesirable results is a failure – Teddy Roosevelt famously said: “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.” Inaction is the most insidious form of failure. Doing nothing breeds feelings of failure just as strongly as working in the wrong direction, but it doesn’t tell you anything about what you could be doing differently. It is also the most surefire way to bring about actual failure since no one ever accidentally stagnates into success.
- A pattern of action that yields undesirable results is a failure – Failure to reach a specified goal is disheartening, but as with all things, it can give you information about what to do differently to keep you from failing. However, the failure to specify a specific and theoretically achievable objective is catastrophic. A blurry target can never be hit. If you fail to carefully spell out your goals, then there is no possible way to actually reach them. In that same vein, if your goals are things you don’t actually desire, then even your success in reaching them will fit the definition of failure.
“I have to believe that when things are bad I can change them.” – James J. Braddock
If this sounds deceptively simple than that’s because it is. But it is not only a roadmap away from failure, it’s also the basis of individual character development. Considering the twin definitions of success and failure can give you a deep understanding of what is going wrong whenever you find yourself not progressing towards your goals.
The implications are clear:
- Set goals that are inspiring and attainable. Aim high, but be sure that whatever goal you have can be broken down into things you can actually accomplish. Focusing on the actions you can take to bring about success keeps you focused on the day and not on the seeming impossibility of your goal.
- Work hard to bring about the outcomes you want. Do not fall victim to failure by inaction. It’s the most surefire path to regret.
- Above all cultivate flexibility. The ability to change is what allows even your failures to breed future success.
In the end, much of our success or failure is dependent upon things not entirely under our control, and no one lives a life unmarred by failure of any kind. We can still, however, strongly contribute to enhancing the likelihood of one over the other. That may make it sound like a nudge is the best you can do, but it’s important to remember that a nudge is the difference between a glass shattered on the floor and one sitting whole on a table.
Life, in its endless complexity and unpredictability, offers no guarantees. Hope arises with the understanding that failure is not something that happens to you, it is something that you either contribute to or combat, as is success. Careful observing your patterns of action will tell you which one you’re doing.
Just as looking to your successes can show you why you’re failing, looking to your failures can tell you how to succeed.
Why Do We Have An Unconscious Bias and How Can We Manage It?
When I hear someone using my name once in a while throughout the conversation we are having, I cannot stop myself thinking “this person must have read Dale Carnegie’s books or must have been influenced by someone who read them…” Have you just recalled a similar moment and it felt nice?
As Dale Carnegie famously said, “Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and the most important sound in any language”. Why did Dale Carnegie highlight the importance of an individual’s name to that person in his “How to Win Friends and Influence People” book published in 1936?
Each and every one of us wants to feel special and unique. I guess he recommends using the person’s name in the conversation because that is one of the easiest ways to grab that person’s attention so that we can enhance the chances of getting our point across. However, I am more interested in this from the other side; hearing our names directly addresses our individuality, our need or desire to feel special and unique.
Let’s park this one for now and we will come back.
Categorization is essential to our survival
There is countless scientific research telling us about how our brains recognize similarities and put things into categories, which has been crucial to our survival in evolution and still helps us with a lot of things from learning new things to coping with the continuous influx of massive amounts of information through our senses.
The continuous influx of information is mostly handled by our subconscious mind rather than conscious. It is estimated that our brains receive about 11 million bits of information every second through our senses, of which only 40-50 bits can be processed by our conscious mind. We process more information than we are aware of. The magic here is the subconscious mind.
An example is when you are at a very loud party where you hear a lot of words flying around without you recognizing each one of them, then suddenly, you immediately catch it when you hear your name. Your subconscious had been processing all of those words, without your awareness, but informed your conscious mind when your name was out there because it was relevant to you.
In order to most effectively process this much information and inform the conscious mind with only the relevant ones, our subconscious employs categorization as one of its strategies.
When our ancestors encountered some deadly predators in the African savanna, their subconscious prompted their conscious mind to immediately fight or flight by categorizing the information gathered through their senses into “predator / life threat / take action”. Most probably we are not descendants of the ones that were frozen rather than fighting or flighting!
Although it is a completely different situation, the same strategy applied in remembering lists. Let’s look at the below two lists.
- lion, eagle, shark, leopard, hawk, whale, panther, falcon and dolphin
- lion, leopard, panther, eagle, hawk, falcon, shark, whale and dolphin
The second list is easy to remember because it is reordered into relevant groups even though the content of the both lists are identical.
Subconsciousness is the magic and categorization is one of its key strategies. It is essential to our survival, learning new skills and processing information as well as bringing back the information we had processed and stored.
This amazing skill has its drawbacks
As a result of our brains’ categorization strategy, we also categorize people, especially if we don’t know them as well as our closest ones.
Imagine I am sitting at the table next to yours while you are having your favorite coffee and working on your computer or reading your novel at your neighborhood coffee shop. I stand up, very calmly grab your bag, and start walking away. Your reaction might be quite different depending on my outfit. It could be much more vocal and harsh if I have a dirty T-Shirt and a pair of torn jeans on. However, if I have some navy colored, 3-piece suit and well-pressed white button up shirt on, you might even say something like “Excuse me, you might have picked up my bag by mistake”. (There is an experiment done by social psychologists which reported similar results)
Similarly, I would not be surprised to hear that my co-worker’s spouse is very skilled and knowledgeable in English grammar and literature because he is an English teacher. However, I would not expect it from my co-worker herself because she is an outstanding chemical engineer.
This is defined as unconscious bias or stereotyping, as a result of our subconscious brain’s categorization strategy. The outfit I have at the coffee shop impacts your response to my action, because it puts me into a different category in your mind depending on my outfit. My co-worker’s and her spouse’s backgrounds make me put them into different categories, which might mislead me sometimes.
Just like we categorize things, it is very natural that we categorize people.
The key question here for me is; how do we truly treat people as individuals so that they feel unique, just like as they would want, while we know that our brains categorize people?
We can overcome unconscious bias
Leonard Mlodinow, in his enlightening book “Subliminal”, suggests that “if we are aware of our bias and motivated to overcome it, we can.” That doesn’t mean that we need to fight our brain’s categorization strategy. We just need to employ our conscious mind more when we are working or dealing with individuals.
Our unconscious bias might tell us scientists are bunch of technical nerds who cannot understand abstract concepts that marketers are talking about or it might say that marketers are some daydreamers who need to be grounded by scientists to the real world all the time. I am an engineer and I love thinking in abstract terms and I worked with quite a lot of marketers who thought primarily in factual and concrete terms.
Spending some effort to learn more about individuals will help overcome unconscious bias. Gathering more information and qualities about them will make it easier for us to treat them as individuals rather than a member of the category we put them in our minds.
The moral of the story here is to recognize the fact that our brains do categorize, and it is essential; but also, to recognize that every individual wants to feel unique. When we appreciate these two and keep reminding them to ourselves, we are one step closer to figuring out our own way to overcome unconscious bias and treat people more like individuals.
What was the most interesting part of this article for you? Share your thoughts below!
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