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How to Fail at Practically Anything

How to Fail at Practically Anything
How to Fail at Practically Anything

    I say, fail a lot. Push yourself to the limits of your talents, endurance, and common sense, and then go one step further and fall down, spectacularly if possible. Failure is one of life’s great forces; it’s driven far more innovation than talent, creativity, or necessity combined. Plus, its stories are better.

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    Most people, of course, avoid failure. Or, at least, they try to, as much as possible. Or, even worse, they deny having failed and push on steadily against increasing odds just to show ‘em they mean business. What good comes of that? What lessons has success ever taught?

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    Pick a skill, any skill: let’s say, tightrope walking. Imagine the first time you approach the cable stretched taught out in front of you, you close your eyes, stick out your hands, and walk to the other side. The next time, same thing. And the next. You are, it seems, amazingly gifted at walking across thin cables suspended high above the ground. How’s that make you feel? Have you learned anything? Should I admire you? Do you even admire yourself? Or are you bored, having found tight-rope walking to be as easy (easier, in fact) as falling down? And where do you go from there?

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    No, it’s the failures we face, large and small — and the way we face them — that make us who we are and give us the opportunity to make ourselves better. How we fail is at least as important as how we succeed. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on failing, drawn from my own vast experience:

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    • Fail with grace. There’s no point failing if you’re going to go screaming and crying into the night. When failure is imminent, cut your losses; don’t fool yourself into thinking everything’s fine, or that you have to “see things through to the bitter end”. Don’t pull others down with you– and that means, don’t waste time pointing fingers. Own your failure. Take responsibility for the mess you’ve made, and for cleaning it up.
    • Have a Plan B. When their first attempts to contact the governments of Earth failed, did the aliens of Space Station 7 go down with their saucers? No, they pulled out Plan 9 and entered movie-making history! No plan is failure-proof; embracing failure means accepting the risks you’re taking and being prepared for the worst.
    • Forgive and relive. Review the events that led up to failure. What did you miss? What could you have done differently? While blaming others is hardly productive, if your trust in others was misplaced, consider what led you to put your trust in them in the first place.
    • Get perspective. Tell an outsider your story, someone you trust to tell you what a knee-biter you are. Ask what they would have done differently, and what advice they’d give you if you were just setting out on your failure.
    • Stop doing that! My dad used to tell me, “Insanity is when you do the same thing over and over, hoping for different results.” Once you’ve identified your mistakes, make an effort to avoid them in the future. I know this sounds like plain common sense, but like they say, common sense isn’t common. Think of all the times you’ve seen someone go through an awful breakup only to take up with a new boyfriend or girlfriend with the same faults as the one they just dumped.
    • Do something. Fail actively; don’t give up and stand like a deer in the road, vacant-eyed, watching the headlights overtake you.

    Failure is the most important learning tool we humans have at our disposal. But if we merely accept failure and move on, we may as well not have failed at all. Instead, we should embrace our failures, milking them for everything they’re worth. Ask yourself what you can take away from your failures, what you’re being given by them.

    In the end, it is only by embracing failure that we achieve success. In many cases, not to fail is, in itself, a failure. Did I just blow your mind? Or have I failed?

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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