Micro-Failures Can Lead to Macro-Successes

What aspect of your personal life or career do you want to change, but avoid because shifting your circumstances means taking a risk that might lead to making a mistake or “getting it wrong”?

My friend Jayden loves being right — and even more, hates being wrong — and he’ll be the first one to admit it. He’s built a successful career in the Silicon Valley high-tech industry by being the smartest person in the room. To be right all the time, you have to be one step ahead of everyone else, and Jayden’s secret sauce is lots of early preparation. But that’s a strategy he didn’t get to employ before his first day of flight school.

Jayden told me that, in college, his study habit was to pre-read any course books before attending a class. But when he went to earn his recreational pilot’s license, he was dismayed to discover that the flight instructor didn’t list any course materials on her website. Jayden showed up for his first day of flight school feeling uncomfortable and unprepared.

To add insult to injury, immediately after her short introduction to the course, the flight instructor passed out a 50 question pop-quiz. Without any content instruction, Jayden and his fellow students were forced to guess at most of the multiple-choice questions. From a lifetime of interest in aeronautics, Jayden knew or could guess several of the answers, but even so, he only managed to get half of the questions correct.

“It made me so irritated that the instructor would waste everyone’s time on a test that no one could do well on without studying,” he told me. “Plus, when we went through the answers it was so frustrating and embarrassing to see I had got so many of them wrong.”

After the quiz, the instructor covered the correct answer for each question and provided context as to why the others were wrong. Jayden didn’t know it at the time, but this exercise was, in actuality, priming his brain to remember all of the coursework better.

Known as “pre-testing,” the method Jayden’s flight instructor used does more than just gauge a student’s knowledge or preview what they will learn in the course. Extensive research by psychologists like Elizabeth Ligon Bjork at the University of California Los Angeles reveals that first getting things wrong helps our brain identify where it needs to focus our attention so that we’re more likely to retain the valuable correct information that follows.

Beyond bringing awareness to areas for further study, pre-testing also has biological effects on the brain. Guessing forces the brain to reshape our mental networks by embedding unfamiliar concepts into questions we at least partly comprehend. Even if the question is not entirely clear and its solution unknown, a guess will in itself begin to link the questions to possible answers. It’s these networks that light up like Christmas lights when we hear the concepts again.

“Taking a practice test and getting wrong answers seems to improve subsequent study because the test adjusts our thinking in some way to the kind of material we need to know,” says Bjork. “On the basis of this significant difference, giving students a pretest on topics to be covered in a lecture improves their ability to answer related questions about those topics on a later final exam.”

Looking back, Jayden realized that his incorrect answers on the quiz were about the very same subjects he found it easier to remember and absorb later when the class covered them in full. Even though being wrong made Jayden uncomfortable, frustrated and a little embarrassed, the mistakes he made fused the correct answers to his brain simply because of the heightened awareness they received.

This mechanism is why I am such an advocate for “failing forward and failing fast” with the executives I coach. When we make mistakes, big or small, our brains remember them far better than the activities we got right the first time.

On an evolutionary level, our minds developed to be keenly aware of what dangers could be lurking around every corner. Not every ancient human heeded the warning signs, and those of us alive today descended from those who were cautious and vigilant enough to learn from the mistakes that put others in danger.

However, “failing forward and failing fast” doesn’t mean making huge mistakes all the time. We certainly do learn from those failures, but they can feel too dramatic and alter life too much for many of us to embrace them fully. Instead, we get to focus on achieving micro-failures that can teach us small lessons and point us in more advantageous directions.

Micro-failures are when we get little things wrong, like Jayden’s flight school questions, that prime our minds to make better decisions next time. In business this could mean A/B testing product functionality and marketing messages, receiving feedback on half-baked ideas from our colleagues, beta releasing to a set of trusted customers, or rapid prototyping to reveal hidden benefits or weaknesses before we ship a product. In our personal lives, micro-failures could mean experimenting with a new health regime, saying yes to an unfamiliar activity with friends, or taking a risk on sharing our true feelings (good or bad) with another person without any guarantee of how they might react.

While it often feels safer, and more efficient not to venture out into the unknown, the reward of insights and knowledge we gain from experience can far outweigh any downside. Just like pre-testing, micro-failures can highlight information we didn’t know or understand fully before, and offer insights into things we can be more efficient with next time. Sometimes they can even open doors to whole new unexplored areas of our lives where we can thrive.

Just as the wings of an airplane are constantly adjusting their pitch and roll, responding to changing atmospheric conditions as they carry the plane safely to its final destination, micro-failures can consistently point us in the most advantageous directions for our lives and businesses without putting too much at stake. The key is to be willing to risk a small part of your time, resources or self-image to the experiment in exchange for the reward of hindsight.

Think back to that area of your life you wish you could shift. What additional knowledge could you use to help it improve? What experiment can you put together in the coming week to gather new insights by achieving some micro-failures? Can you commit yourself to follow through on this experiment?

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.” ― J. K. Rowling

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