Friday, January 18, 2013

Failure and Frustration

Why do we get mad when we fail?

The key to understanding your emotions is to ask what purpose they serve.  The key to using and existing with them in a way that's healthy is to let them do their job when they serve the purpose well, and to gently dismiss them when they don't.

To a brain that wants to keep itself alive and healthy, failure represents the possibility that we will lose everything.  The brain can't really tell the difference between failing at a combo in a fighting game and failing to escape from a burning building.  It has no inherent software to do this.  You teach it the difference through constant avoidance of one and constant exposure to the other, until it recognizes one kind as dangerous and scary, and the other as "something that happens sometimes, whatever, it's not a big deal."

Failure needs to hit a sweetspot for it to be useful to us.  Perfectionists treat every failure, no matter how trivial, as an attack on their very identity, so they avoid doing things they aren't perfect at (which is bad for learning), and they get horribly upset when they make errors.  Some people don't respond to failure at all, meaning they don't bother improving at anything (which is also pretty bad for learning).  Ideally, we want our response somewhere in the middle.

Emotions don't exist in a vacuum.  They exist to serve us.  So when you screw up and fail, then you become angry or depressed or frustrated, are the emotions serving you?  Are they energizing you and pushing you to perfect your craft and make yourself better?   Or are they debilitating you, and making you quit?

There are lots of reasons we quit when we fail.  We quit to abandon the sinking ship.  To not waste our time on fruitless endeavors.  To go do something we look competent at, so people will believe we're valuable.  As we get older, many of us expect ourselves to stick to things we are good at.  I've joked that it's terrible to learn musical instruments at an older age because you don't expect grown men to sit at the piano then fail to play Hot Cross Buns.  Kids do that.  Kids are supposed to suck at everything, because they undeveloped brains and bodies and skills.

And that's why kids learn so much.  Not because they're good at it; kids suck at learning.  It's impressive how much of it they do unconsciously, but really, when you compare a dedicated adult with a competent teacher and well-designed curriculum to a six year old kid just doing his own thing, the adult comes out on top every time.  With full immersion and concentration, adults can achieve conversational fluency in a language in absurdly small amounts of time, but children take years, and they make lots of goofy mistakes in the meantime.  But we expect kids to say stuff like, "I taked my monieses to the growry stow!"  Because they're kids, and kids are kind of dumb.  It's not their fault, they don't have all the hardware installed yet.  And we still love them.

So here's the thing.  Lots of people who have "talents" have been learning them from a young age, as children.  It's not a mystical thing.  There's lots of failure involved, they just don't notice the several years of failure because they are kids.  They're also having fun, and since they aren't developing skills for any intentional purpose, the failures don't sting as badly.

A kid who draws for eight years before starting to see some semblance of that "talent" that we think is necessary?  They spend most of it doodling, learning passively and accidentally.  Young kids very rarely have a drive to focus their learning.  Many times, what it takes to push somebody to higher echelons is an adult figure that is ruthless about drilling excellence into them.  There's a surprising number of people who say, "I really hated doing X because my Dad/Mom/Coach just made me, and it wasn't fun... until I was 15 and suddenly realized, 'hey, I'm actually kind of good at this!'"  Suddenly there's understanding, competency, fluency, comfort, things many of us take joy in.  Where did this skill magically come from?

And there's really no reason to believe they are talented, unless you count a brain primed since youth to perform that specific task as talent.  Apart from prodigies (the ones with impossibly perfect brain architecture to perform a skill) talent as a determining factor is kind of overrated.  Talent is probably better described as "learning luck," where you happen to start training the right skills early in your "career."  There's no doubt that people's brains contribute to picking up different skills better, but brains also change in structure and composition based on how you train them.

Nobody likes failing.  Not really.  Some people say, "I love to fail because I learn from my mistakes," but failure sucks for them too.  They just don't dwell on the suckiness.  Failure gives information about what you did wrong, but only if you analyze and learn.  You must expect to fail.  The thing is, every little thing you do will be full of lots of tiny failures.

There's a double edged sword in this.  You want to learn things properly from the beginning, and develop great fundamentals.  But, especially without an authority figure pushing you when you want to give up, it can be ridiculously mentally draining to grind perfect form in the basics... and if you only compare yourself to the highest level masters (because mastery is your goal), it can be disheartening as well.

How to fix this?  Well, our goal is to use the best of both worlds.  There's the attitude of children, who are too busy having fun with the whole thing to care about failure.  They don't have many expectations on themselves, so they just keep hammering away at skill over the years they grow up.  But you also have the mentalities, experiences, attitudes, resources, and critical thinking skills of an adult, the ones that seriously narrow the learning field.  Ideally, you also have the willpower to remember what you really want, and let that want sustain you when failure is getting you down.

Thanks for reading.  See you next week!


  1. There are a lot of attitude and mentality issues with the way our culture is. It's not that "nobody likes failure." It's that we're taught from many aspects of society that failure is a poor reflection on us. It isn't. We know this from learning how we learn. And we know some cultures don't have this negative sigma. So it's on us to get over ourselves.