Failure’s relationship to creativity has been discussed in this blog several times before — expecting, tolerating, embracing, and learning from failure. The October 29, 2011, Wall Street Journal article, The Art Of Failing Successfully, by Jonah Lehrer, provides a more scientific look at learning from failure.
Lehrer writes that people experience two distinct reactions to failure. The first one is a mostly involuntary reaction, called Error-Related Negativity, that appears about 50 milliseconds after the failure. The second one is called Error Positivity, and happens when we dwell upon the disappointing result.
We learn most from failure when our Negativity response is large, meaning the reaction to the failure was strong, and when our Positivity response is consistent, meaning we focus on the failure and are trying to learn from it.
Our Negativity response may be more automated, but how we think of things greatly controls our Positivity response. If our mindset is one in which we think we can learn from failure (a growth mindset), obviously that helps us in this type of situation. If our mindset is one in which we think mistakes happen as a result of stupidity and nothing can be done about them (a fixed mindset), that does not help us learn from failure.
Lehrer writes about an interesting experiment that showed that if people were praised for being smart, they tended towards a fixed mindset, and if they were praised for their effort they tended towards a growth mindset. That reminded me of a company I worked at years ago where a senior manager told everyone at the company that the company would not reward people for their efforts, only for their results. That company no longer exists today.