Why do some people respond to failure differently to others?

Portrait Of A Upset African Businesswoman In Office

In an attempt to better understand why we should embrace failure, we sat down with psychologist Kim Stephenson to find out what exactly happens in our brains when we fail; and why some people struggle so much with failure, while others seem to take it in their stride.

So, Kim, what’s actually going on inside us when we fail? How does it affect us?

Trying not to get too technical, basically human beings evolved to survive – that’s what natural selection is about. Human beings all have an optimism bias, which basically means we all expect that we’re going to succeed. We never think that we’re going to fail – that’s why people are always late, they think that it’s an hour’s journey so they mean to leave themselves an hour, but they actually leave themselves 55 minutes and turn up late. But we always assume that it’s going to go right.

That optimism bias protects our ego. It’s actually quite scary to think that you’re out of control. What happens is everybody tends to assume that what they do is good and people assume that they make decisions logically – particularly men – so they tend to be overconfident. So if it doesn’t work out it tends to come as a bit of a shock to people. This is the same as what would have happened back when we were cavemen. We evolved as hunter-gatherers so because we’re expecting that things are going to go right, we’re expecting that when we go hunting we’re going to catch something, we’re expecting that when we gather food we’re going to remember where the stuff we want to gather is, we’re not expecting that we’re going to get lost and wander around for three hours. And when it doesn’t work that’s actually quite painful.

We’d already evolved systems to deal with physical pain, before we really encountered social threat: the flight or fight response – or, fight, flight or freeze. That’s to deal with physical threat but we see social threat in the same way because as we evolved, the physical system had already developed. So what happens is the social pain and humiliation when we get it wrong activates exactly the same things in our brain as physical threats to our lives.

So if we fail we have this humiliation response and this pain experience almost like someone has hit us. We’re expecting everything to go well and we’re ticking along nicely and it’s almost like suddenly a sabre-toothed tiger appears. All the neurotransmitters and chemicals in the brain when we fail are the same as that sort of fear and it really hurts. It’s a really physical reaction. It’s the same sort of pain. That’s why some people when they’re humiliated cry, or feel sick. There’s no other reason for that. Your body is getting you ready to fight or run.

But what about people who have failed continually? Don’t they come to expect failure again?

Sure, some people will have a failure, they’ll feel sick, they’ll be upset with themselves, they’ll beat themselves up, they will get caught up in this failure. There’s a thing in counselling psychology that says that depression is about it being personal, permanent and pervasive. And you can find that failure can lead to a downward spiral that can cause depression.

Take for example, someone who fails in a relationship, a guy whose girlfriend dumps him, it’s ‘I’m worthless’ so it’s personal, ‘it’s everything I do, I’m useless with girls, no good at work and rubbish at sports, nobody likes me’ so it’s everything that he touches because of this one instance of failure, and it’s permanent, ‘it’s never going to be any different, I’m never going to have a relationship because I messed it up with her’. That’s a pattern that can occur.

In the same way, if someone fails in business it can kick off a similar spiral. And that essentially leads to doing the hunter-gatherer equivalent of going back to their cave and just sitting there because they’re not going to go out hunting again because they got it wrong.

Obviously the human brain is the most complicated thing in the known universe so there isn’t a simple answer for why that is but that’s what’s happening. If people go into a spiral and they believe those things, it’s easy to see that it’s going to be a lot of work for them to come back from that.

So anyone who manages to not get caught in this downward spiral has embraced failure and learnt from it?

Not necessarily, there are some people who, like the bankers, will get arrogant about it and say that it wasn’t their fault, it was just circumstance and they’ll carry on and ignore what happened.

This is where those glib expressions come in. You get all these things like, ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again’, but you’ve also got the expression, ‘the definition of madness is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result’. So for entrepreneurs, there’s a fine line between stubborn, bull-headed, and arrogant, and believing that if you try hard enough you will succeed.

But the thing with finance or indeed with launching a start-up is that there are what people refer to as risks. But technically, risks refer to something that you can calculate mathematically, what you’ve got otherwise is uncertainty and the real world is full of uncertainty.

So how can start-ups deal with this uncertainty and the fact that they may fail?

The problem with the real world is that somebody can change the rules in the middle. You never really know what the odds are when you start, anyway though. You’ve assumed that the world is not chaotic (in the technical sense), that it’s not complex (in the technical sense), that it’s predictable and that what you’re doing is all a calculated risk. You haven’t realized that really what you’re doing is inventing some numbers. That’s uncertainty.

The thing is that there’s different ways to react to when that goes wrong. I think that the important thing for people recovering from that is to realize that that is the level of uncertainty. Actually, if it goes well, a lot of that is down to chance – it’s not because you’re a genius. A lot of people assume that serial entrepreneurs have done so well because they’re geniuses and they know how to do it.

But the thing is, you have to look at it in terms of what you can afford to gamble. If you’ve made several million from your first venture, you can afford to gamble half a million on a few other projects and you might get five or six wrong, but you could get one that goes well and because you have the start-up capital to make it work it could go on to make more money. If they hadn’t been lucky to begin with, they wouldn’t have had a chance to do well with the others because they would have gone bankrupt.

It’s not saying that it’s all about luck; it’s saying that failing, like Edison said, might be telling you that you need to try harder. But it also might be that you have to persist – if at first you don’t succeed.

One of the things for people to realise is that there’s no easy formula to work out whether they should keep trying because that could be just being pig-headed. What people have to do is to be as coldblooded about it as they can, to examine their assumptions and to accept that they have failed and there could be all sorts of reasons for this. This is where having a group of critical friends is crucial. You need people who are willing to be brutally honest about where you might have gone wrong.

There’s not a lot of point in beating yourself up about it. The thing to do, to use the Edison quote, is not blindly persist, but work out if this is one of the 99 times you have to fail in order to succeed or if it that it wasn’t a good idea in the first place, or maybe it wasn’t the right time.

By Natalie Clarkson|Virgin