Funders and Apes: Our Troglodyte Approach to Failure

by Andrés Spokoiny

Last year, influenced by the hype around Darwin’s 150th anniversary, I developed an interest in evolutionary theory. I read a few books about it, including the masterful Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and since then I’ve been kind of obsessed. I usually find myself in odd moments trying to analyze human behaviors and traits, especially emotions, focusing on how they would have helped us survive and evolve in the savanna hundreds of thousands of years ago. What is the evolutionary reason for, say, love, or envy, or solidarity? Is art a “byproduct of evolution” or is it an extension of the capacity for communication and expression.

As part of our new innovative content, this year’s Jewish Funders Network conference featured a forum on failure. While digesting the conference’s great presentations about failure, risk taking, and “trial and error,” I couldn’t help going back to Darwin and evolution. And actually, the way in which we react to failure and success is deeply rooted in the most basic evolutionary mechanisms. When the brain decodes a situation as a success, it will produce dopamine, a substance that generates euphoria and well-being, and oxytocin, which makes us excited, self-confident, and interested in physical contact. (It’s a short path from success to reproduction.)

On the other hand, when we perceive that we have failed, the brain will deploy a full chemical army to make sure that (a) we feel really bad and (b) the memory of how bad we feel stays with us for a long time. Evolution’s goal is clear: Avoid failure and don’t repeat it. Your survival depends on it.

But a few hundred thousand years down the line, the world is much more complex. We have virtually the same brain our forefathers had, but our environment is radically different. What if today success is more complex than smashing an elephant skull? What if it becomes less clear cut when you are failing and when you’re succeeding.

I posed those questions to my friend, eminent neurologist Amir Raz. He smiled and asked me to imagine a homo sapiens hunting birds. He shoots an arrow and misses, experiencing failure and the scorn of his troglodyte friends. Now let’s assume he picks up his arrow and realizes that by missing the bird he hit a tiger he hadn’t originally seen, which was trying to surprise those unwitting humans. Will he experience failure or success?

Now fast forward 200,000 years. You have a test at school and you get a score of 99. Is that a failure or a success? If your parents expect you to be perfect, it’ll be perceived as a failure. The main message is that success and failure are deeply contextual. They depend on the interpretation we give to a certain situation. And by assuming this, we can stop being slaves of our brain chemistry and develop a different approach to failure.

In our world of accelerated change and radical uncertainty, unintended consequences and multiple casualties are the rule, not the exception. The boundaries between success and failure are becoming increasingly blurred. (Think of Viagra, a failed heart medication that became one of the biggest pharmaceutical and commercial successes of all time.) Amir’s example of the bird and the tiger is commonplace. We think we miss, and then we score big; we think we hit the target and we missed a much larger one.

In our world, when we deal with complex and difficult problems that do not have a straightforward answer, we need to understand failure as an inseparable part of a creative and productive process. We need a different framework, conceptual and even neurological, to understand and deal with failure. In a word, we need to break off from our troglodyte approach to failure. And because we know how our brains work, we know that we can create a context that provides a different interpretation of failure. One that doesn’t tell our brains to be risk averse and avoid failure at all costs, but to consider failure in a larger, positive context. Embracing failure, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, may be the key to success.

But how do we do it? Going forward, I’ll offer seven principles to overcome our primitive brains and capitalize on the inevitable.

Andrés Spokoiny is president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.