Failure currently is a highly topical issue! You can read and hear about it everywhere: an error culture lived in practice and fuck-up nights. However, firstly, I have my doubts that simply labeling something “error culture” indicates that there actually is one. And secondly, I do ask myself whether we try to really benefit from our mistakes and moments of failure.
I would like to go into more detail as regards this second aspect. In the article “Schöner Scheitern” (Failing in style) by Sebastian Herrmann dated November 12, 2022, he quotes two psychologists who argue that people have quite a hard time learning from their mistakes. The reason they give for this is the excessive pain people feel when they allow for the feeling of regret to surface. Regretting something means questioning your self-perception, i.e. your own ego. We are not quite comfortable with doing the latter and try to avoid it as far as possible. This behavior is also exemplified by the fact that we seek to dodge negative feedback, even though we all know that this provides a huge opportunity to learn your lessons and to improve.
In his book “The Power of Regret,” Daniel Pink argues that it is precisely the feeling of regret that enables us to learn from our mistakes in the first place. Indeed, we can use the moment of honest regret to look back and consider what we could have done differently to achieve a better result. In the best case, we learn our lessons from such situations for the future. Daniel Pink distinguishes between “productive regret” and “unproductive regret.” In terms of unproductive regret, we would keep on pondering exclusively about the past and thinking about what we could have done differently, whereas productive regret means that we transfer our lessons learned to future actions and decisions. Obviously, productive regret is what we all strive for!
Unfortunately, the feeling of genuine regret – despite all the lip service paid to error culture – is still fairly uncommon in our society. We are advised to look forward rather than looking back. We are urged not to talk too much about our failures, but to focus on telling success stories, etc.
This means that there are two challenges for us to overcome if we truly want to learn from failures:
- We need to question our ego and allow for regret to evolve, even if we have a hard time of doing so
- We need to ignore the fact that it is still not widely accepted in our society to talk about failures
One solution that has become common practice at least for start-ups is to hold “fuck-up nights” on a regular basis. During such meetings, entrepreneurs present their own stories of failure. Why does this format work when people usually tend to be reluctant to talk about their mistakes? Well, normally, our ego prevents us from admitting that something went wrong. During fuck-up nights, the stage is open to those who are willing to stand by their mistakes. On the other hand, the stage allows our ego to feel good.
An alternative way to express genuine regret, if you don't want to talk about it in the public, is to write down what you experienced. In doing so, we open up a way of gathering the insights behind failure and thus a way of analyzing it in order to learn for the future.
In a nutshell: You can only learn from your failures when you allow for the challenging feeling of regret to surface. Contrary to the common belief of “No regrets!,” the feeling of regret is the basic prerequisite for learning and improving.
Sayings such as “Tumble, stand up, fix your crown, and keep on going” also convey the idea that looking back is far from clever. But it is only when we analyze what went wrong that we are able to make things different next time. Not looking back would mean making the same mistakes time and again. Now, please tell me what’s so clever about that?
*Lauren Eskreis-Winkler and Avelet Fishbach
This text first appeared in my newsletter 'Innovation on Wednesday'. It is published every other Wednesday. For subscription click here