Antifragile Living Part II: Fail Early, Fail Often

Kids are frustrating because they don’t listen. You tell them not to run on concrete, they ignore and then fall and scrape their knees. You tell them to get ready for dinner, they keep playing and a shouting match ensues when they arrive late. If only they would do what the bigger, stronger, wiser person (i.e. you) told them. Wouldn’t we all be happier?

We would not. Kids need to push the boundaries to develop. They need to feel the pain of the rough concrete to learn about the dangers of running. They need to feel experience disapproval and anger from parents for coming late to understand that they should respect dinner time. As long as the harm is not fatal or debilitating – what does not kill them makes them stronger. Kids’ development is antifragile – they grow stronger by the application of moderate doses of stress. Kids who listened would grow to become coddled, fragile kidults.

But why stop with kids? As adults our development is also stifled if we never fail. Recent research concluded that the sweet spot for learning is to fail 15% of the time. When we engage in activities with this level of failure, we optimise our learning. When we fail 0% of the time, we just aren’t growing, learning.

So, why do we fear something so good for us? Because we believe in a mythological label – The Failure. Unlike failing, which is good in small doses, believing oneself a failure is destructive. When we believe ourselves a failure we are inclined never to try, because failing is a signal to ourselves that our deepest insecurities are true.

What if I have failed a lot in the past, surely that means I’m a failure? Maybe in the past you had experiences of failing. Someone has to be bottom of the class, it might have been you. But, and this is so important to know, there really is no such person as a failure. Early experiences of failure may lead to overgeneralising and labelling oneself a failure; a failure schema develops. This is not the same as being a failure. There is no failure centre of the brain. The brightest experts and specialists cannot identify failures from scans or examinations.

In the 1950’s until the early 1970’s South Sydney Rugby League Club won the premiership 9 times. Then, from 1972 for 42 years they didn’t win a single premiership. Until 2014, when they were champions once more. As the cliché says – you’re only as good as your last game. Your past track record counts for little to nothing.

“That’s great for a sports team, they have different people every year, I’m the same person now that I was in high school, a loser then a loser now”. Actually, your cells have an average lifespan of 7-10 years, so you’re quite a different person now. Change is the one constant in life. Every day your organism (the being you inhabit and are) is adapting to its environment. It doesn’t fear failure, it just grows to fit the current demands that it faces.

So, fail early and fail often. Take every loss to be a learning experience. Never hide in shame about not coming up best, your losses make you stronger. Never believe the lie of “the Failure” label – you are more than your early experiences. Setbacks lie ahead no matter what – make yourself more antifragile by accepting failures.

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