5 Ways to Fail Successfully: Why Paradox Matters for Leaders

Failure is a beautiful norm.

If science can teach business anything, it is this not so sexy fact: The problem with science isn’t that most experiments fail; it is that most failure is ignored. Lots of research has been conducted that the stuff we read in peer-reviewed journals is biased towards “statistically significant’ results, implicitly and explicitly rewarding the successful result as ‘better’.

The failed or neutral-finding experiment could be the perfect piece of wisdom one needs to know about.

One theory behind why this asymmetry goes on is that the brain is wired to seek what it wants to think is true (confirmation bias), over what is actually more true. And so the next failure you experience with yourself or with others, especially if it happens like a failed experiment over and over, stops the urge to “pad your data’ by projecting onto the other person and love and see “what is’. It could save you a lot of headaches.

A learned brain is a dangerous thing.

This is all a lot more wired than we think.

Kuhn, a genius philosopher of science, once said, “the only scientists capable of paradigmatic revolutions are those new to the field or very naive.’ Research has shown this, that the intellectual narcissistic blinders (ie, needing to be right vs. effective with people in the most genuine of senses) come off in the hallways AFTER the center stage, lights, and clapping after a talk….during the impromptu discussions. For, in these contexts, the brain is not primed to be right. This is all a lot more wired than we think. Other research has shown that it takes utter boundary type reality violating statements (dare we say the introduction of the absurd?) to shock the brain’s prefrontal cortex, enough to come up with second-order change type associations. So risking utter embarrassment (not just a “safe failure” in contrived brainstorming sessions) may just be the type of failure needed to bring on the type of success that we actually need.

Making failure to feel good hurts you.

If you are like me, you have likely heard the ol’ saying “failure makes us stronger.” While the intention behind that may be ‘good’, I think from a neuroscience side of things it ironically is not doing what you think it is to the person you are speaking this to. That is, the brain is getting validated via the reduction of threat circuitry. While this is of course an essential component to get the brain to shift and change, we usually ‘stop there’ with people and assume that the necessary learning has taken place. And in my work, I have actually seen that relational dynamics that reak of mere ‘safe’ communication in repetitive or ill-placed occasions pad the brain to need that (addiction perhaps?) over learning. So as a leader, it is truly an art form with words to speak with the wisdom of Proverbs, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” While your employees aren’t necessarily friends per se, it does remind us of handing out the right pains at the right time for the right purpose.

Live in Truth. Yeah, yeah, I know. “my truth/your truth”.

But at some point, if you do put your hand on a hot stove it will indeed remind you of a natural law of things that is greater than your perceptions. One of those levels of reality that I have always been blown away by was a statistic I had read in a New York Times article that stated that people nowadays are actually in a state of ‘disconnection from self” about 30 percent of their day, at least (some much longer, going through the motions in a mechanistic way). Because at first glance (when judgments are made) behaviors that are anchored to an aware’d self look to the myopic eye of the biased brain as the same as the one truly connected and grounded, we can make assumptions about their ability to engage in the level of non-fear talk required for accountability. For we know now that the brain manufacturers rationalizations more so than apriori rational thinking.

Let this then be a lesson to leaders who talk leadership buzz non-stop to head nods and smiles around them. Be wary who is really listening.

Remember how the world fails failure.

I can recall growing up with lots of language (explicit or implicit) that the way to see human nature is through the lens of a fixed growth mindset. That is, seeing some people as being born with the talent needed to be a success. While this can make sense on the surface when you see—as a parent, let’s say—natural piles of differing outcomes from your kids start forming all around you. Before you know it, distinctions get made, lines drawn, and we see us making “He is this way, He is just not wired that way”, or “She was always that go-getter….She was never the one who self-started things…..”

This messaging on the brain ironically erodes the very thing one needs in life for success—calling bullshit on one’s self when things hit the fan and preventing the knee jerk reaction to blame.

For it is the growth mindset—not the fixed mindset—that we are actually born with that craves the opportunity to fail well. But parents reduce dissonance with their own brains making up stories on who these people are in front of them. And this all gets worse over time, as parents reward certain behaviors and misdirect praise turning us into “fixed mindset’ people. The corporate world also buys into this in many ways, even if just subtly. So, a courageous leader to see the water we all are swimming in….not just the “good fish”.


Dr. Kevin Fleming
Dr. Kevin Fleming
Dr. Kevin Fleming is a three-time University of Notre Dame grad and Founder of a global neurotechnology-based firm, Grey Matters International, Inc., that concentrates on providing true sustainable behavior change solutions for distinctive clientele seeking to go beyond mere self-help, coaching, and therapy. His work has been featured in top media outlets including The New York Times, CNN, Forbes, Fortune, Christian Science Monitor and has been endorsed by faculty members in both Harvard Medical and Business Schools, given the crossover illusions of success and happiness that confuse high performing brains of our modern day. This innovative neuroleadership research and practice of his prompted an invite to speak for top Middle Eastern leaders in 2008, which had cabinet members for the King of Jordan in attendance. He received a feature chapter on his behavior change work in a book that hit the tops of both Wall Street and NY Times bestseller charts, ALL IN by Adrian Gostick. With the growth of Grey Matters International his offering of cutting edge neurotechnology options for creating breakthroughs in mental health, he was asked to be an expert aftercare resource for the CBS hit show "Face the Truth", created by the producers of The Doctors and Dr. Phil. In addition to being considered as one of the top personal & executive coaches globally (published in interviews and anthologies with the great Marshall Goldsmith, the late Stephen Covey, and Deepak Chopra), he is the U.S. Ambassador for the International Regulatory Body of Coaching and Mentoring. He is also on the Advisory Board for the DeNicola Center for Ethics & Culture at the University of Notre Dame. He resides in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Tulsa, OK and enjoys singing/songwriting and recording as a semi-professional recording artist and studio drummer, having recorded projects with the producer/bandmate affiliated with Carole King and Dan Fogelberg.

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  1. Failure is not beautiful and it is not easy, it takes away security, it takes away the trust in us. Gurus shouldn’t tell us to fail, but to try and learn what we are wrong and focus on solutions.
    “If you don’t fail you won’t be successful.” Perhaps better to say “if you do not have the courage to try and take risks you will hardly be successful, if you are not able to learn from failure you will not be successful”.
    So the point is not to fail, the point is to try again and also to determine what true success is.

  2. Interesting how long it has taken us to wake up and realize that thinking, creativity, curiosity and all the things that make us human are systematically knocked out of from a young age – so that we eventually are shaped into the round peg to fit into the round hole … of course now that those round holes are all being filled with robotics, AI, machine learning, off shoring, outsourcing … we humans are asking … what now – and we are being told to be creative, think differently, explore, be curious, be human ….

    great article – and thankyou for making the topic approachable.

  3. Great points about how we perceive children to be this or that, Kevin. My hypothesis is that the younger child senses where there is free space to be noticed, and that is typically not in the fields the older sibling(s) have already claimed as their turf.

    You sent me right back to thesis writing. My professor wanted to publish; I didn’t care. Exactly because a non-finding, a hypothesis deconfirmation, was probably not going to be published anyway. I found a lot of other interesting things related to bias looking at the data, but that would be for another set of hypotheses, and (supposedly) that is not the way we do research.

  4. I love this, Kevin! As a former educator, I really appreciate the growth mindset/fixed mindset information here. I always tried to teach my kids that the real growth comes when we realize we’ve been wrong or better – why we’ve been wrong. Somewhere along the way we lose this as adults. Thanks for this and welcome to BizCat! I’m looking forward to learning more from you!