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Why Failure is Important

failure

I talk a lot about leaning into challenges on this platform for a variety of reasons. Science shows it promotes growth, resilience, and neuroplasticity (the changing of brain wiring). With challenge comes error, mistakes, frustration, failure, and even, at times, the desire to quit. Well, as it turns out, errors and mistakes are an integral component in the process of neuroplasticity. In fact, they are necessary and should actually be embraced! That’s right, if you want to change your brain and improve your health, your mindset, learn a new skill or develop a new behavior, you should embrace failure. 

Reason being, failure or mistakes cue the nervous system that something is not right or did not go well. This leads to the generation of neurochemicals that cause behavioral change. These chemicals signal neural or brain circuits that they have to reorganize in order to make things go right. Errors and failure create agitation, which creates heightened awareness and focus. These are the keys and precursors to neuroplasticity. The brain releases molecules like acetylcholine and epinephrine for alertness and focus. And these molecules drive brain change. 

Now here’s the kicker: when we start to make a little progress or when we start to get a few of the behaviors correct AND when we start subjectively rewarding ourselves, the brain then releases dopamine. And that feel good molecule helps continue the pursuit of the better behavior. It also starts to lock in that neuroplasticity and allows it to occur even faster. 

Errors = Learning

Making errors over and over again is the key to shaping our nervous system to perform better and better. This makes total sense from an ancestral point of view. Why on earth would our nervous system ever change if we weren’t agitated or we were getting things right all the time? We would be content and hunky-dory. It’s that threat or that error or that danger that gets us moving and changes us. 

Another key is that small, incremental errors and incremental behavioral changes, especially for adult brains, is paramount for neuroplasticity. You’re not going to get huge changes right out of the gate. It takes small steps overtime. So you can actually make smaller errors if you take smaller bits of information and smaller durations of learning or whatever it is you’re trying to change or improve. Break it down into small manageable pieces. Make small errors.

The final key to this failure and neuroplasticity initiative is all about purpose. And we are all about purpose on this platform. Purpose seems like a necessary component in all areas of life, and this is no different. How badly we want or need the plasticity determines how quickly the plasticity will occur. If there is an extremely heightened incentive for the change, neuroplasticity can occur even quicker. So life and death situations, or hunting for food, for example, plasticity occurs much quicker than learning a second language for fun. 

Failure Example

Here’s a real practical example from Stanford Professor of Neurobiology Andrew Huberman. If I want to get better at free throws, I should practice actually making free throws until I hit the point of frustration where I’m missing a lot. Then once I’m at that point, I should continue for anywhere from 10 to 100 more trials. And that should be the absolute limit to improve some aspect of the motor behavior. So what should I be paying attention to specifically during this process?

Well, obviously trying to get the ball into the basket. But the beauty of motor learning is that the visual and auditory circuits work pretty much automatically. So you don’t have to focus specifically on a particular movement on the fingertips, hands or elbows. Or look at a specific point on the rim. Those circuits more or less teach themselves. The key is to try a bunch of different parameters (like mechanical positions) until you find you’re getting a little bit better. In other words, you don’t need to hyperfocus on one aspect, but rather, feel the totality of the behavior.

So, when you make a mistake or make errors and get frustrated, the worst thing to do is quit. Don’t turn away. Leverage that frustration and lean into it even more. Take the necessary action to make small behavioral changes. Even at the first sign of getting better your brain will release the required chemicals to facilitate neuroplasticity. Quitting will wire in those feelings and make it harder to persist in the future.

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