What  We Can Learn From



Learning can be an awkward, even painful, process of repeated failure. Young children are great at this, but as we get older, we seem to become resistant to incompetence.

For example, a manager in an EQ course told me,

“It doesn’t feel natural for me to express empathy, so I don’t think I should keep trying this.”

Do you remember the

“Thank You Mom” ad

P&G made for the 2014 Winter Olympics?

Watch it again, and as you do, think about the experience of learning something new, and of practicing:


What do you notice watching? In addition to the tribute to moms who support — what does it say about failure and learning? Can you imagine yourself in that process of falling and falling and getting up one more time?

When I tried snowboarding a few years ago, I had no real objection to the first 30 times I hit the snow. Yet in other areas of my life, I’m disappointed when I don’t do well. I suspect a key difference is expectation. Snowboarding, I expected to fall (though I didn’t expect *quite* as much pain as I experienced when I fractured my tailbone). In other areas, I expect to succeed quickly, and then I’m disappointed by my failures.

Appreciating Failure

A society fixated on first place and “the right answer” is a brutal obstacle to learning. Several years ago I saw a billboard, again about the Olympics, with, “Second Place is the First Loser.” Really? Isn’t it an epic achievement just to compete there?

At Six Seconds,

we’re working toward a billion people

practicing emotional intelligence.

But maybe we should say, a billion people failing and trying again? The bad news is we will all fail often — we’ll react following old patterns… we’ll ignore the wisdom of emotions…. We’ll get caught up in short-term goals and forget our real purpose… but the good news is, these are each chances to try again, and to learn.

Using Failure Well

In our book, Inside Change, Max Ghini & I wrote that a key step to change is, “find the success in the failure… A well-used failure may have even more value than a success.” How can we convert failure from a crushing weight into a building block?

One key we offer in the book is the competency of Exercise Optimism.

Optimism is not the same as “positive thinking”

An optimistic view requires confronting failure and taking ownership. According to Martin Seligman’s model of optimism, we need to put on a TIE:

Temporary:  I failed, and at some point I will get better. Nothing lasts forever.

Isolated:  I failed at X, and that affects some things, but not everything.

Effort:  I failed this time, and next time I’m going to try something new. I haven’t tried everything yet!

It’s not over… yet

2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeong Chang gives a beautiful example of this principle. At the start of the men’s 30km skiathlon, Simen Hegstad Krueger crashed into two other skiers — what a terrible failure. Listen to the optimism in his explanation (from NBC):

“I was completely last in the group,” Krueger said,

“so I had to start the race again and switch focus to catch up with the guys.

When I did it, I was (saying to myself),

‘OK, take one lap, two laps, three laps and just get into it again.”

In the end, Krueger earned gold — but only after a spectacular failure.

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Joshua Freedman

Joshua is one of the world’s preeminent experts on developing emotional intelligence to create positive change. With warmth and authenticity, he translates leading-edge science into practical, applicable terms that improve the quality of relationships to unlock enduring success. Joshua leads the world’s largest network of emotional intelligence practitioners and researchers.
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