Learning from success
Inspired by Irish writer Samuel Beckett’s famous quote, business innovators are pushed to “Try again; Fail again; Fail better”. But what if “failing better” means not failing at all, but focusing on our successes instead?

Researchers have observed that when athletes pay attention to what they did right rather than where they went wrong, they do the right stuff more often in the future and experience greater success on key performance indicators. If this strategy works well for elite athletes, why for not couch potatoes like us?

The Right Stuff

No one likes a bossy boss who sees your every mistake as a “teachable moment.” It turns out that when people encounter negative feedback, no matter how well-intentioned, it interferes with their ability to learn new skills and process new information.

A 2019 research study in the U.S. asked 422 telemarketers to answer ten multiple-choice trivia questions. Participants were randomly divided to receive one of two feedback messages—a positive or a negative one—after answering four of the questions. When they were asked to redo the four rephrased questions, the group who received positive feedback were more likely to give correct answers the second time (62 per cent correct) compared to the group who were randomly given negative feedback (48 per cent correct).

A similar effect was seen with rugby players who watched a short pre-game video of a successful play and who also received positive coach feedback (as opposed to cautionary comments or no commentary at all). The players who got verbal encouragement showed lower levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone, and had better performance on the field.

When we care a lot about the feedback or the person who is giving it – if it’s from a work supervisor or from a respected coach, for example – we’re more likely to mentally hold on to it. Carrying around others’ negative opinions of our performance can turn into some heavy baggage over time. One study asked students to write either positive or negative things about themselves on a piece of paper and then throw it away. By discarding the paper, the students reported that they had stopped thinking about the comments.

One possible reason that negative feedback impairs our future performance is that receiving criticism threatens our ego, and this causes us to mentally check out. That makes it harder for us to concentrate, communicate, or learn new skills. The more we can remove our sense of self from the feedback, the easier it is to objectively weigh its validity.

Set Up for Success

We certainly do learn from our failures, but doesn’t it feel much better to succeed? One way to increase our chances of success is to practice “future hindsight”, also called doing a “pre-mortem.” In a pre-mortem we brainstorm the things that led to the hypothetical failure and, by identifying them in advance, reduce the likelihood of their occurrence.

In a recent medical study, patients who received “pre-habilitation” with a trained coach had better health outcomes after knee replacement surgery. The “pre-hab” involved working with someone who had already had this type of surgery and who helped the new patient optimize his/her muscle strength and reduce pain before the operation. New patients reported feeling better prepared after receiving the personalized support. Seeking a mentor or coach who has already done what we’re about to embark on could be a key factor in tipping the outcome in our favour.

Much has been written about the benefits of positive self-talk, which is the near-constant internal dialogue we generate. Even though it may seem “woo-woo” to some, there are now reams of scientific studies that show how it can improve our mental and physical health and that the positive effects can be long-lasting.

Perhaps the best way to “fail better” is to just give ourselves a break. At a 2018 psychology conference, Dr. Robert Cialdini, one of the world’s leaders in the study of behavioral science and a best-selling author, recommended that we don’t focus on our mistakes and, most importantly, don’t identify with the decision itself. “Forgive yourself for bad decisions in the past. Say two ‘Hail Marys’ and make a different decision next time. Avoid the mental habit of saying things like, ‘I always do that...’”

Practicing positive thinking, hanging out with positive people, and not taking criticism personally are a good recipe for future success.

Rita Silvan, CIM™, is personal finance and investment writer and editor. She is the former editor-in-chief of ELLE Canada magazine and is an award-winning journalist and tv media personality. Rita is the editor-in-chief of Golden Girl Finance, an online magazine focusing on women’s financial success. When not writing about all things financial, Rita explores Toronto’s parks with her standard poodle.

Rita Silvan is a paid spokesperson of Sonnet Insurance.

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