Frogs and Failure

If I asked you to name the defining feature of a frog, you might say its ability to jump. Most frogs hop spectacularly, landing their jumps deftly on their forelimbs with precision. 

But not all frogs.

The pumpkin toadlet, a tiny, Tic-Tac sized, orange-colored frog with scrawny limbs, starts off strong with a powerful leap into the air. Then, as it begins to descend, its body twists and tumbles. It ends up crashing to the ground, landing on its back, belly or head. Sometimes, the little amphibians will bounce so much upon landing that they rocket back up and land in another catastrophic way. 

Scientists have recorded these incompetent touchdowns – which they’ve kindly termed “uncontrolled landings” – on video.

Quite simply, the pumpkin toadlet is very bad at jumping.

The problem, according to scientists, is that the pumpkin toadlet’s vestibular system – the inner-ear canal system that coordinates movement and balance – is so small that it is essentially nonfunctional. That means the frogs can’t get their bearings while in air in a way that would allow them to control their landings.

Because of this, the pumpkin toadlet isn’t very fond of hopping. Instead, these frogs spend lots of time slowly walking around with grumpy looks on their faces and hiding under dead leaves, jumping only as a last-ditch escape. 

Sometimes, our society celebrates failure as a teachable moment. And it certainly can be. But for most of us, when we fail, we tune out in ways that block us from learning and improving. To avoid failure, we act like the pumpkin toadlet and simply avoid the behavior, staying far away from the information the ego-crushing feedback offers. 

So what is a more helpful approach? Unlike the pumpkin toadlet, we are capable of adjusting our actions, building our skills and achieving better results. Research indicates that we learn from challenging situations when we shine a light on what we are doing well, think about the ways we’ve been successful and recognize how we made it happen. Often, when we describe these personal successes, we end up recognizing what we’ve had to overcome in ways that help us stay motivated to keep leaping forward.

Photo by Mauro Regalado Soares

Author: Alyssa Forcehimes, PhD

An expert in behavior change, substance use disorders and empathic communication, Dr. Alyssa Forcehimes serves as President of The Change Companies® and Train for Change Inc.® She lives in Arizona with her husband and two daughters.