"I haven't failed. I've found 10,000 ways that don't work." ~Thomas Edison
There is a field of research that studies how scientists study things. And by scientists, I mean anyone who acquires knowledge by forming a hypothesis—essentially a belief about what they expect to see—and then tries to prove it. Most of the time, this testing of hypotheses takes place in sterile clinical settings that allow scientists to control for every possible variable.
But these folks who study scientists have come up with some startling findings recently: science is messy and scientists are often frustrated by it. You see, experiments rarely produce expected results. And what do scientists do when they are confronted with their so-called failures? They discount the findings, ditch the data and try again. And since they usually use the same theories and techniques, they are disappointed over and over.
All of us (not just scientists) think we're empiricists—that our views are dictated by "the facts." But as it turns out, we've actually got blinders on, especially when it comes to information that contradicts our beliefs. The problem with science, as in life, isn't that unexpected outcomes occur—it's that they are dismissed as irrelevant.
Why is it that we are so resistant to seeing some gift in the unexpected outcome or to trying something new? Apparently the answer can be found in the way the human brain works.
It turns out there is a region of the brain that allows us to seamlessly go about editing our experiences. It's called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or DLPFC. It's located just behind the forehead and is one of the last brain areas to develop in young adults.
It plays a crucial role in suppressing so-called unwanted events and essentially rids us of the thoughts that don't square with our preconceptions. It's like our mind immediately presses the "delete" key when we're presented with unwanted reality.
The thing is, we usually create problems for ourselves when we rely on our inner editor without question. Remember the saying? Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The DLPFC actually encourages us to do the same thing over and over.
Fortunately, there is a simple and effective strategy for dealing with what is termed "failure blindness." Our biology makes it easy, and even normal, to filter out information that contradicts our preconceptions. Keeping that in mind, and staying conscious in the face of new information, is a good way to learn from what looks like failure, and perhaps see that it isn't failure at all.
So when you feel like you've failed, ask yourself if you can be sure this is true. The first two questions that make up Byron Katie's "The Work" are "Is it true?" and "Do you absolutely know it's true?" They get my attention every time. More often than not my response is "Um, no." And from that point I am usually much more able to focus on interpreting the information coming in rather than just reacting, telling myself I've failed or made a mistake, and sending in my internal editor to make everything okay.
I've found, too, that when I explain my problem to someone new this often helps me to see it differently. (Friends aren't as useful for this sort of thing: they are often so familiar with the challenges we face that they're just as biased as we are.) Often, too, those whose minds have had very different experiences from you can produce the most surprising and helpful ideas: these are the folks who are most likely to see that what you see as a mistake or failure is actually the first sign of a promising new discovery.
You might want to try this: ask as many "new" (but trustworthy and discreet!) people as we can find to come up with possible solutions to your problems. When you get a handful of different opinions, choose several options that could positively address your problem—or turn it to your advantage—and act on them. Even if you cannot fully transform the negative into a positive, you have probably found some relief and are well on your way to resolving the situation from a new standpoint.
So the next time you feel like you failed at something, question that thought, and try to remember these words by Bob Dylan, "There's no success quite like failure."