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“We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.”

― Samuel Smiles

Isaac Newton’s third law says, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” It’s a widely accepted phenomenon occurring naturally in life.

Success and failure are no exceptions; they exist as polar opposites. However, despite their differences, they each provide the opportunity to learn invaluable lessons.

Be that as it may, our learning outcomes from success and failure are often disproportionate. We tend to learn more from failing than succeeding.

Why is that?

When we fail, we learn mostly in part by the element of surprise from inaccurately forecasting the event. In other words, we expected to succeed and failing was utterly shocking.

*As a side note, the less surprised you – or anyone else for that matter – are about a specific failure, you have a clear indication of your belief in succeeding in the first place (let that sink in for a moment).*

Researchers even pinpointed the region in the brain responsible for attempting to prevent mistakes leading to failing. In the moments of failure, shock heightens our awareness, and we become hyper-focused and attentive.

Success, however, doesn’t quite strike the same nerve. Mostly in part because our expectation to succeed leaves little surprise when results are in perfect harmony. Ergo, disproportionate learning outcomes to our failures.

If the headline isn’t becoming quite clear as to why we should treat every success as a failure, let me sum it up before we dive deeper. We must be deliberate in our quest to acquire lessons from successes, so they are proportionate to our lessons from failures.

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Just how can we accomplish such proportionate learning?

Failure and Our Reflective Thinking

I’ll guess you’re like most people, where your failures hold more weight than successes in life. They stick out farther, last longer, and you likely learned ten-times more lessons. It’s because such failures evoke a strong sense of reflective thinking.

Let’s examine a few immediate thoughts and actions upon failing.

  1. We think deeply about the entire process. In such thought, we identify errors in judgment and flaws in our actions.
  2. We isolate areas of opportunities. This process allows us to hone our skills to avoid making the same mistakes twice.
  3. We become extremely present in the moment. Time seems to slow down as we beg it to hurry along. However, we discover more opportunities in such an extreme state of awareness.

Success and Our Lack of Reflective Thinking 

When we succeed, we tend to lack reflective thinking. It’s simply not a natural response to the event. We move quickly to actions that are opposite of those displayed during failures. Such actionable differences result in our disproportionate learning outcomes.

Let’s examine a few immediate thoughts and actions upon succeeding.

  1. We celebrate our victory. It’s our time to bask in the glory as the bells ring and the banners fly.
  2. We experience waves of increased confidence. Our level of belief in our abilities likely skyrocket.
  3. We love the rush of excitement and try to elongate the feeling. We enjoy the euphoric state and try to “keep the party going” as long as possible – it becomes a focal point.

Treating Success Like Failure – Reflective Thinking

If you desire to achieve exponential growth in your life, I’d urge you to treat your successes like failures in this way – become reflective in your thinking immediately after you succeed. Force yourself to be hyper-critical of the entire process, and ask questions to zero in on the lessons.

One important note, I’m not suggesting you reflect for days on end, no, the celebration is imminent. The exercise could be accomplished relatively quickly. It’s dependent upon the magnitude of your success, so you decide how long.

To help with your efforts, here are some example questions to ask immediately upon succeeding:

  1. What was I thinking immediately before the event and how did I manage these thoughts (both positive and negative)?
  2. What was I thinking during the event and how did I manage these thoughts (both positive and negative)?
  3. In what ways could my performance be improved?
  4. In what ways was my performance stellar?
  5. What are my thoughts now that I’ve succeeded (both positive and negative)?

You may wonder why there is so much weight placed upon “thinking.” The reason is thoughts drive actions, so managing them is critical to your success. Henry Ford best demonstrated this point by saying, “Whether you think you can, or can’t, you’re right.”

Exercising deliberate, reflective thinking increases your chances of experiencing learning outcomes in direct proportion to those experienced during times of failing.

If that’s not enough, let me give you another reason.

Treating Success Like Failure – Developing Self-Discipline & Willpower

How about developing a higher degree of self-discipline and willpower? Does that sound enticing? Just by delaying gratification and becoming reflective in your thinking, you will enhance these qualities. I’ll use the famous Marshmallow Test as proof.

When researchers studied adults who were unable to hold their temptation for immediate gratification as children, they found lower levels of self-discipline and willpower. For adults who delayed gratification as children, they experienced higher levels of success than their instant gratification counterparts through better self-discipline and willpower. The study was profound in uncovering the effects of delaying gratification.

Essentially, by completing this exercise of reflective thinking immediately after you succeed, and before celebrating, you will increase your self-discipline and willpower along the way.

We call this a “two-for!”  

Final Thoughts

First, the entire process is counter-intuitive, especially the moment we succeed. Our conditioning causes reflection thinking from failures over successes. However, by incorporating deliberate, reflective thinking in every success, you will greatly enhance your learning outcomes – ten-fold in some cases.

Keep in mind, even a short timeframe will profoundly impact your growth. I’m not suggesting you delay celebrations for days; that’s just blasphemy. I’m only suggesting you take “some” time, even just minutes, to increase your chances of experiencing exponential growth.

With that, I’ll leave you with Ray Kurzweil’s quote regarding exponential growth, “Our intuition about the future is linear. But the reality of information technology is exponential, and that makes a profound difference. If I take 30 steps linearly, I get to 30. If I take 30 steps exponentially, I get to a billion.”

(I mean, who doesn’t want to get to a billion!)


As always, thanks for taking the time to read and I hope to hear your comments below!