How Failure Leads to Epiphany

Jonah Lehrer has written a thought-provoking piece on why we too often miss the great opportunities presented by failure. In Accept Defeat:  The Neuroscience of Screwing Up, he explains how our brains purport to “help” us by screening out information that doesn’t fit with what we believe we know.  Here’s how he describes it:

The reason we’re so resistant to anomalous information — the real reason researchers automatically assume that every unexpected result is a stupid mistake — is rooted in the way the human brain works. Over the past few decades, psychologists have dismantled the myth of objectivity. The fact is, we carefully edit our reality, searching for evidence that confirms what we already believe. Although we pretend we’re empiricists — our views dictated by nothing but the facts — we’re actually blinkered, especially when it comes to information that contradicts our theories. The problem with science, then, isn’t that most experiments fail — it’s that most failures are ignored.

Ignoring failure can occasionally be a sanity-preserving, efficiency-enhancing approach to life.  However, when we ignore repeated failure, we may in fact be ignoring the only feasible explanation on the horizon.  Realizing this and acting on it requires strength of mind, openness, and a certain measure of humility.  It requires a true empiricist’s approach to life.

So how do we turn perceived failure around?  How do we find an epiphany amongst the rubble of unwanted test results?  Jonah Lehrer has the the following advice:

Check Your Assumptions: Ask yourself why this result feels like a failure. What theory does it contradict? Maybe the hypothesis failed, not the experiment.

Seek Out the Ignorant: Talk to people who are unfamiliar with your experiment. Explaining your work in simple terms may help you see it in a new light.

Encourage Diversity: If everyone working on a problem speaks the same language, then everyone has the same set of assumptions.

Beware of Failure-Blindness: It’s normal to filter out information that contradicts our preconceptions. The only way to avoid that bias is to be aware of it.

When it comes to implementing Enterprise 2.0 tools, there’s no substitute for constant experimentation.  And, there’s no way to avoid disappointments as you struggle to find what works best in your organization.  That said, don’t be too quick to discard your apparent failures.  When viewed with an open mind, they may point the way to success.  By following Jonah Lehrer’s advice, you may be able to find a breakthrough — an Epiphany.

****************************

Here is some additional reading on Failure:

[Hat tip to Dan Pink for pointing out this article.]

[Photo Credit: wenzday01]

Share