Failure as a platform to learn

Gina Wieringa with a letter from our January edition.

Having made my fair share of mistakes, I have always believed that it is the way you respond to failure that determines whether the eventual outcome is helpful or a hindrance. It is refreshing to see that the Health and Care Professions Council have recently revised their standards of conduct, performance and ethics to include a standard about being open and honest when things go wrong (Standard 8). Creating a culture whereby failure is seen as a platform to learn rather than something to be ashamed of is the first step in encouraging practitioners to be open and honest about their mistakes.

Failure should be seen as something that can be positive. A recent psychological term ‘post-traumatic growth’ describes a phenomenon whereby sufferers of difficulties caused by trauma have been seen to result in increased resilience and renewed appreciation for life. Perhaps the same philosophy should be applied to failure; emphasising ‘post-failure growth’ rather than criticism and negative appraisal.

Additionally, a study by Daniel Lim and David DeSteno [covered on the Research Digest] has recently demonstrated that the more adversity in life someone has experienced, the more compassion they tend to feel and show towards others. In this survey, participants answered questions about adversity they had suffered in life, including injuries, bereavements and relationship breakdowns. They also completed measures of empathy and compassion, and the opportunity to donate some of their participation fee to charity. The more adversity the participant had experienced (regardless of its nature), the more empathy they had. In turn, this greater empathy was associated with higher sympathy ratings and their generosity (as measured by their donations to charity).

Although this study only demonstrates a correlational, rather than causal link, between adversity and compassion/empathy, it is nevertheless indicative that those who have suffered setbacks are more likely to show empathy to others. Is it too tenuous to extend such a conclusion to those who have dealt with failure?

A therapy increasing in popularity is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and similar principles could be applied in the workplace to incidents of failure. If we create a culture of admitting failure rather than creating a culture of shame, we create an environment that encourages openness and honesty, a core standard for HCPC practitioners. It also increases the likelihood that the failure will result in personal development rather than in feelings of shame and guilt. With one in four experiencing mental illness, and one in six children experiencing anxiety, it’s about time we changed perceptions of failure and reduced the associated stigma. In turn, we will encourage children to challenge ideas, be ambitious and flourish, rather than increasing their anxiety of potential setbacks and failures.

Failure is a part of life and a potential for growth, and the quicker we accept that, the better societal attitudes we create to personal difficulties in general.

Gina Wieringa
Final-year psychology student
University of York

Illustration: Tim Sanders

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