July 30, 2020

Turning ‘Failure’ into Insight

Thomas Edison famously made 1,000 attempts at inventing the light bulb before he succeeded. When a journalist asked him how did it felt to fail 1,000 times, he replied that he didn’t fail, but that “the light bulb was an invention with 1000 steps”.

I mentioned previously how one study showed smokers take (on average) 19.6 attempts before they succeed in quitting. Some might see that as a sign of how difficult it is, and they’re right.

But it also shows great resilience that so many people dust themselves off after each unsuccessful attempt, try again and (eventually) succeed.

One aspect this study did not focus on was the type of method people used to quit (vaping, patches, tapering off, cold turkey etc.) or why they succeeded when they did. What was so different about the successful attempt compared to the other ones? Would understanding why they didn’t succeed in the past help them succeed in the future?

Whether you’re trying to quit smoking for the 20th time, lose weight again, or trying to get up earlier every morning, it can be useful to reflect on why you think previous attempts didn’t succeed. It could be a combination of many things, and you may not know exactly why an attempt didn’t succeed, but a small amount of reflection could give you some ideas on how to increase your chances of making that habit stick.

This isn’t meant to be an exercise in failure - changing habits to achieve goals is not easy and if you’re succeeding first time on everything, then you’re not human. Edison’s achievements are incredible and there were many years of effort before that moment, but we can all agree that the invention of the lightbulb was worth it!

This type of reflection can be part of developing a ‘coping plan’ for your goal, namely, identifying barriers that you know you will encounter as you try to achieve your goal and writing down ways to overcome them.

A basic coping plan could look like this - Take a sheet of paper and answer the following questions:

  1. What is my goal?
  2. For each previous attempt (if any): What did I find easy? What did I find hard?
  3. Why did I succeed (or not)? If you're not sure about this answer, that's ok. But you can probably make a decent guess. Is there a pattern in why you (did not) succeed?
  4. Having answered the above questions, what I can do differently to help make it easier to succeed? Examples include: a different approach (such as reading about the topic in more detail or joining a course about the topic), talking to or spending time with friends who can give you support when you're finding things hard, or talking to a mentor/professional in the area who can advise you.

This can also be a great exercise to do after you have achieved a goal. By writing down why it worked, it can help you in planning for the next goal you want to achieve!