Stay away from sour grapes and ostriches—Failing better

January 18, 2023

Stay away from sour grapes and ostriches—Failing better

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”—Henry Ford

Today’s leaders and inspirational speakers often talk about not being afraid to fail. The fear of failure often holds us back from trying something new or learning from our mistakes, and without facing the risk of failing, we have no chance of achieving success. But as Zig Ziglar said, “Failure is an event, not a person.”

However, some of us fail and fail again the same way instead of failing better. If we want to fail better, fail forward, and use our mistakes as stepping stones and learning and growth opportunities, there are two human tendencies we need to avoid in the face of failure.

  1. Sour-grape effect

In Aesop’s famous fable, “The Fox and the Grapes,” we see the story of a fox who gave up on the grapes he desired because he couldn’t reach them, thinking to himself that the grapes were probably sour anyway.

It is a human tendency to downplay something we want to achieve simply because we fail to achieve it. This tendency to abandon our dreams or goals prematurely is called the "sour-grape effect," and it can be very self-limiting.

Research shows that even the mere reminder of a past failure can influence people to lose motivation in many areas of life. One bad interview can cause them to give up on a dream job. One bad play can lead them to quit playing a sport, and one rejection can make someone decide to stop trying.

The coping mechanism is to accept Plan B or C, making justifications and convincing themselves that the alternative was what they wanted all along, rather than coming up with alternate routes and working on changing the process to achieve those goals (Plan A). The sour-grape effect makes us give up on our dreams before they have even begun, even though our initial goals and dreams may change in the future.

  1. The ostrich effect

The ostrich effect is a cognitive bias that describes people's propensity to "bury their heads in the sand" in order to avoid receiving negative information and feedback, much like ostriches do. 

The research on this is quite fascinating. 

In the "Facing Failure game," participants are presented with a series of either-or inquiries or puzzles, such as: Which of the two symbols do you think represents an animal? And were then informed whether their response was correct or incorrect.

These participants remembered their responses correctly when questioned later but did not learn from their mistakes.

However, a different group of participants who were asked to watch a round of someone else's "Facing Failure game" from the sidelines were easily able to pick up on that player's errors.

This suggests that people can pick up lessons from mistakes. But when we are the ones making the error, it is simpler to ignore it and act as though it never happened than it is to face the error head-on and learn from it. When unchecked, hurt feelings brought on by mistakes and personal failings can prevent people from learning new things.

Failing better

How can we "fail better" without being ostriches and sour grapes?

Distancing ourselves from the circumstance is one tactic. We can't reason clearly or see the big picture when we are too close to something. Try posing the question in the third person, for example: "Why did Tristan fail?" instead of "Why did I fail?"

A little distance goes a long way toward giving us a fresh perspective on a problem or situation. Additionally, it aids in reducing the negative emotions we naturally experience as a result of making mistakes, such as frustration, shame, or sadness.

Giving advice to people who might be in your shoes is another tactic. Similar to self-distancing, it is simpler to view the issue objectively when you do not have any personal stakes in it. If you were focusing on your own issue, you might have felt that certain actions were too risky.

A confidence boost from helping others can also help you face your own issues and failures, according to studies.

We can be so passionate and invested in a goal or dream that failing feels even scarier than normal. However, if you never face the risk of failure, you are probably aiming too low or avoiding the things that actually matter. 

It is easy to turn a blind eye to our frustrations or cope with them by settling for less and convincing yourself it was what you wanted all along, but that will never help you learn, grow, and be better. Creating a little distance when facing failures can give you the courage and confidence boost you need to face them head-on.

So, stay away from sour grapes and ostriches, and fail better! 

Thanks for reading “A Brilliant Tribe.”