Another Failed Experiment! It’s when things don’t work that we learn the most
Do we learn more when things go as expected or when they don’t?
When I was a scientist working in the lab, I would commonly spend my days setting up experiments. The goal was to develop assays that could be used to discover new drugs against cancer and other diseases. Sometimes my experiments would tell me what I expected, “Yes, this combination works well.” But most of the time I ended up learning what did NOT work.
Although this was extremely frustrating (projects go much faster when experiments give you the results you want), I soon realized that these were the times when I learned the most. After the feelings of disappoint and frustration started to fade, I knew that I needed to stop and think more deeply about why my experiment didn’t work so I could make informed changes for the next time. My mantra became, “This is an opportunity for us to learn more.”
“Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.” Thomas A. Edison
It’s been more than 10 years since I’ve worked in a lab, but I still find this mantra very helpful for everyday work and life. Imagine a meeting or conversation that didn’t go well. Or maybe it’s a project you’re working on, or simply a situation you find yourself in. Later, you could consider, “This is an opportunity for me to learn more. What can I do better or differently next time?”
It’s normal for our brains to get stuck focused on what didn’t work. The key is to practice recognizing this instinctive reaction and see that these challenges are not failures, mistakes, or obstacles. Instead of seeing them as making our lives or work harder, we can think of them as constructive feedback that can help us get better. This can shift our mood from stress and frustration to curiosity and optimism.
Be on the lookout this week. When things don’t go as you want, try using the mantra, “This ‘setback’ is an opportunity to learn more.”