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Last Updated on November 2, 2018

Why Failure Can Take You One Step Closer to Success

Why Failure Can Take You One Step Closer to Success

Are you one of those people who has never failed? I hope not, because failing in my opinion is a stepping stone on the road to success.

In my world of work I am seen as a “productivity expert”. I use GTD, I try and test productivity apps and I teach people how to organize both their physical and electronic world. But I’m going to let you into a little secret:

I’m not naturally inclined that way.

Chaos

I am chaos — or maybe I’ll qualify that — I was chaos.

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My life was disorder, disorganization, stress, frustration and many more negative things. When I was young my father used to offer me a shovel on my way to bed. The joke was that I would need a shovel in order to clear a path to my bed. Yes I was that bad.

Control

The fairytale goes like this; I was chaos, I found the world of productivity and now my life is order, control and success.

I don’t think so.

There have been many bumps on the road and I still battle at times to keep my physical and mental world in check. I didn’t like the rigidity of systems, the discipline of routines. It wasn’t going to work for me. I got started and I failed.

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Failure

What is failure? A student once asked me:

“Is failure a necessary component in success?”

We debated the subject in class and came to the conclusion that failure doesn’t have to failure 100% of the time in order for someone to be successful but more often than not it will be a component. Especially when the success comes from hard work and personal achievement, as opposed to getting lucky or having a successful family.

Most business people fail the first time they start a business. In fact, statistics say that on average most people finally succeed at their third business.

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(Corollary: Don’t panic if you are starting your first business; some of these succeed too.)

What entrepreneurs will tell you is that the important thing is to learn from failures, understand what happened, pick yourself up and start again.

So if failure is a stepping stone to success then why does this word have such a negative connotation? I think we need to change the way we think and speak about failure. The following words I heard at a weight watchers meeting and I think these words can become a philosophy for life

“You are going to fall, but that doesn’t matter, what matters is how long you stay lying down.”

So, that’s it.  We all fail. We all fall down. It’s how quickly you pick yourself and dust yourself off that is a strong determinant of success.

Failing at being productive

As I mentioned earlier, I’m not naturally an organized person (to put it mildly). I also said that I did fail, but I picked myself up, I persisted and today I can now honestly call myself organized and productive. Sure, I’m not productive 100% of the time — Twitter and Facebook have a lot to answer for — but my stats are getting better. Through persistence and determination, I’ve learned all the tricks of the trade. I’ve tweaked them and now I have a lifestyle that works for me.

I have failed many times on my journey and at times I have been demotivated and disorganized, but because I know the beauty of productivity, the benefits and the possibilities, I know it’s worth that little extra effort to stay organized.

My Top 5 Tips

If you are just thinking about becoming more productive, or if you have tried and failed, here are my top tips to help you get going — or get back on board.

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  1. Have clear goals. This helps with motivation and purpose.
  2. Get a system. You need a way to organize and process your work, it also helps when you go off track by giving you a road-map to get back on track.
  3. Get up early. You can achieve so much more in the early hours when no one is awake. (This may not work for night owls. Instead, they need to get a head start on the early risers the night before.)
  4. Exercise. It reduces stress and creates energy to up your game.
  5. Meditate. This also helps with stress relief, focus and concentration.

And remember: If or when you do fail in life, it’s not an occasion to cry, it’s an opportunity to learn, grow and improve. A time get excited about the possibilities of what comes next and stand up to the challenge.

Featured photo credit: William Krause via unsplash.com

More by this author

Ciara Conlon

Productivity coach, speaker, blogger and author of Chaos to Control, a Practical Guide to Getting Things Done

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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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