How to learn from failure as a maladaptive daydreamer

Life is a process of trial and error. We can’t always predict how something will turn out. Sometimes we just have to try it and see. As Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” That reframing of failure as a learning opportunity helps many people get comfortable with taking risks and trying things out. But maladaptive daydreamers can find it difficult to learn from failure.

To learn from failure, you have to fail

It sounds obvious, but you can’t learn from failure if you never fail. In real life, the only way to avoid failure is to avoid trying. And, unfortunately, that’s an option maladaptive daydreamers choose all too often. Why try to do something in real life and risk failure, when you can do it in your daydream world and guarantee success? That’s one of the reasons we find it so hard to step out of our comfort zone. If you don’t see any value in failure, daydreamed success is going to win every time.

But to go back to Thomas Edison’s quote: if you succeed at your first attempt, instead of finding 10,000 ways that won’t work, you’ve found ONE way that does work. Depending on the situation, that might be all you need. But how many of the other 10,000 options would have worked too? How many of them might have worked even better than the solution you found? And did your solution work because it was genuinely a good option, or just because you decided it would?

To learn from failure, you have to reflect

Even when we try something new in the real world, we don’t always learn from the experience. If you try something and it doesn’t work, all that tells you is it didn’t work on that day, in those circumstances, with the people who were involved at the time. That doesn’t get you much closer to figuring out what will work.

To really learn from failure, you have to reflect on why you failed. You have to understand exactly what went wrong, and use that information to inform your next attempt. Just randomly trying something different will probably lead to another failure. But if you know why what you tried didn’t work, you can use that information to find something that has a better chance of succeeding. And that’s when you start moving inexorably towards success.

But daydreamers don’t usually spend much time thinking about why we failed. Failure is uncomfortable. Acknowledging failure means acknowledging that you aren’t perfect – or, often, that your real-world self isn’t quite as competent and powerful as your daydream self. Thinking about something that went wrong can bring up feelings of embarrassment or shame. Is it any wonder we’d rather daydream than put ourselves through that?

But understanding this is the key to change

Non-daydreamers learn from failure naturally. The real world is the only one they have, so it’s the only place they can experiment and try new things. And their thoughts tend to stay grounded in reality too. So when something goes wrong, they tend to spend a lot of time thinking about it. That isn’t necessarily a good thing, if that reflection turns into unhelpful rumination. But the reflection happens, and it happens very naturally.

As daydreamers, none of this comes naturally. But that’s OK. Once we understand that in the real world, failure is a natural and even helpful part of life, we can stop expecting everything to always work out perfectly the way it does in our daydreams. We can start to let go of our fear of failure. And when we do that, we allow our natural curiosity to come to the surface. We are eager to explore possibilities. We find the courage to try.

And just as we can let go of our fear of failure, we can also learn the art of healthy reflection. Once you understand that there is value in reflection, it becomes less attractive to avoid it by daydreaming.

Our daydreams can even help us

You can’t really practice failing in your daydreams. You can imagine failing, but it’s going to be a carefully planned and controlled failure. It won’t have the same emotional impact on you, because you know it’s not real. And in the real world, most failures happen because of something you didn’t anticipate or couldn’t control.

What you can do in your daydreams is test possible actions. When you’ve failed in the real world, and reflected, and decided what to try next, you can practice that next action in your daydreams. That might help you identify parts that probably won’t work so that you can refine your plan. And, it will make you feel more confident when you try it in the real world, because you’ll feel like you’ve done it before. If we use our daydreaming strategically, we can arrive at a successful result more quickly than if we were limited to real-world trial and error.

So if you’ve been judging or criticising yourself because you seem to make the same mistakes over and over again, or if you never try anything new because you can’t be certain it will work out, stop and consider whether the reason you don’t learn from experience is simply because you didn’t realise you could. The truth is, we can learn from our mistakes, even as daydreamers. And with practice, we can even learn faster, and therefore be more successful, than people who don’t daydream.