Turning Frustration into Fuel
The science of making mistakes and neuroplasticity.
"I can't do it. It's too hard."
I'll never forget the moment, sitting at my parent's kitchen island, feeling deflated after my first maths tutoring session for GMAT, a standardized exam required for admission to most graduate business programs globally.
A feeling of relief washed over me when my parents didn't try to convince me to keep going, and we all agreed I wouldn't take the test. So instead, I applied to schools that didn't require a GMAT.
Looking back, as a young 21-year-old, I wish I'd known about neuroplasticity and the power of those feelings of frustration.
Your Brain is NOT Fixed
"I'm not good at math."; "I'm not a creative person."
Somewhere along the way, I picked up these labels to define what I could and could not do.
But a single paragraph from the positive psychology book The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor changed everything:
We are able to rewire our brains to be more positive, creative, resilient, and productive — to see more possibility wherever we look. It’s not a question if, but how much change is possible.
I learned about the concept of neuroplasticity for the first time:
A scientifically proven fact that, as humans, unlike other species, we can rewire our brains.
This fantastic feature of our nervous system allows our brains to change in response to experiences, thoughts, and actions (for better or for worse, by the way.)
Sure, our brain's capacity for learning and adapting to new knowledge reduces after we hit a certain age (generally around 25).
But that doesn't mean that accessing our brain's ability to grow and expand is impossible.
Virtually everyone who studies the brain is astounded at how plastic it is. — Kurt Fischer, Harvard Medical School
In this post, I'd like to tell you about an under-appreciated feature of neuroplasticity:
The importance of making mistakes and the feelings of frustration that arise from them.
Making Mistakes Primes Your Brain for Learning
Many people start a new project or skill with loads of energy and enthusiasm... until they start encountering the agitation and frustration that comes with errors and slow progress. And they decide to stop.
That's a massive shame because the research studies are clear.
These moments of frustration are precisely the moments we should aim for in our learning process.
I first learned about this in Huberman Lab's episode on Using Failures, Movement & Balance to Learn Faster.
It blew my mind.
The way to enter an optimal state of plasticity, where your brain and nervous system are primed for change, is by creating mismatches or errors.
Think about it. If everything goes smoothly, there's no reason for your nervous system to pay attention and adapt. Adaptations are energetically expensive, so your nervous system will rely on habitual patterns wherever possible—unless it's forced to make a change.
Mistakes signal to your brain that something is wrong; something isn't being achieved. This feedback loop will trigger a cocktail of neurochemicals to be released and notify your nervous system of the need for change:
- Epinephrine (or adrenaline) for alertness
- Acetylcholine for focus. This helps your nervous system recognize the gap between what you're doing and what you're trying to do.
- As your brain makes adjustments, the slightest improvements will give you small dopamine hits (the motivation molecule).
And here's what's key to understand about dopamine:
As well as gritting through failure and persisting until we improve, we can also support dopamine release by subjectively coupling the feeling of frustration with a positive reaction.
This can be as simple as telling ourselves that errors are a crucial step toward learning anything.
Don't underestimate the extent to which the dopamine system and the sense of whether you are on the right track are under your cognitive control.
Whenever you're feeling frustrated and feel like you're not making progress, tell yourself, "I am growing. These feelings of discomfort are good for me."
And it's not about lying to yourself, pretending you're making progress while you're not. But there's a difference between saying, "This'll never work." and saying, "I'm learning."
Reframing the experience as an opportunity for growth can increase dopamine release and make the learning process more enjoyable.
“Humans don't like feelings of frustrations; the few that do will do exceedingly well in whatever they pursue in life, those who don't, don't learn much.” - Andrew Huberman
Use the State of Neuroplasticity To Drill Deeper
It's important to reiterate that neuroplasticity itself is not brain change.
It's a state of the brain and nervous system that allows for change.
When you enter this state, the possibility of change is not just geared toward the specific thing you are trying to learn (for example, a math formula.) Your brain doesn't know and doesn't care about what it is you're trying to do.
Instead, it's entering a state of plasticity, and you are learning from every experience at that moment.
If you can find a way to leverage the frustration toward drilling deeper into what you're trying to learn, you are setting yourself up for terrific neuroplasticity and rapid learning.
On the other hand, if you take the frustration and walk away, you are using the state of plasticity to rewire your brain according to that moment—feeling deflated and incapable.
That's what I did after my first tutoring session: in this optimal state of neuroplasticity, I took my discomfort as a reason to quit. Unknowingly, by doing this, I was reinforcing my belief that I am not good at math and there is no point in trying. That belief shaped me for many, many years.
Finding the Right Balance of Difficulty
Of course, there's only so much frustration we can reasonably handle.
It's important to find the right balance of difficulty.
When the project or skill is too easy, your nervous system isn't learning from trial-and-error feedback.
When it's too difficult, you'll lose motivation and confidence.
Mario Andretti, one of the most successful F1 race car drivers, famously said:
If you have everything under control, you’re not moving fast enough.
Research shows that the proper ratio for success vs. errors is 85%-15%. Don't worry too much about the specifics. The point is to keep in mind that errors are essential for learning, so don't try to avoid them.
Final Note: Embrace Those Feelings of Frustration
So here's what to remember:
Frustration and tension are not signs that you need to stop. Instead, keep practicing and capitalize on your mistakes by trying again while your brain is in a maximally attentive state.
Embrace the discomfort of making mistakes. Lean into the feelings of frustration and recognize them for what they are: your brain working hard to adjust its circuitry.
Just knowing this about our brains can help us manage our emotions better. Being conscious of the fact that chemicals are sloshing around in your system as you're feeling frustrated lets you observe those feelings with curiosity, shushing the inner voice telling you to quit and "you can't do it."