Success Redefined

Are you better off than you think? Featuring: Why it's good to screw up every once in a while, how to measure real success for women, and how to make the best of a bad situation.

The Sweet Smell of Failure

Getting what you want may not get you what you need.

Striving for success is a goal that most of us don't ever question. We encourage our kindergarten (or younger) children to strive to win and we seek to scramble to the top of our own particular heaps. Even if we don't all share the need to be Number One, most people are taught from an early age to value the experiences that lead us to a positive outcome and to avoid those that lead us to anything short of that.Yet, success isn't always all it's cracked up to be. I once read an undergraduate student's scholarship application essay in which he claimed never to have failed to achieve any challenge that came his way. That statement made me a little sad. Either he was setting the bar for a challenge far too low, or he was setting himself up for huge disappointments in the future. Almost invariably, the day will come when he finds a challenge he can't meet, and then what will he do? I was reminded, in contrast, of the Thomas Edison quote: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Though failure isn't something we necessarily strive for, there are times when it leads us to loftier heights than we might otherwise achieve.


People who are too hung up on success can be so concerned about holding on to the positive results that they have achieved that they never stretch themselves. There is a well-known social psychological principle at play here, one captured well by the song lyric from the song Me and Bobby McGee "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." Research on risk-taking shows that people are less likely to take chances when they've reached a desired goal. If people have already lost something, then they're more willing to give something new a whirl.
I've seen this with students who have perfect grade point averages. As they progress through their college careers, they are less and less likely to take difficult courses or courses outside their major for fear of losing their 4.00. They are also less likely to get involved in extracurricular activities that they think might take too much time away from studying.

The upshot is that success breeds conservatism and a tendency to hold on to what you've got. You then will be less likely to take advantage of some new opportunity that comes your way. The opposite is also true. People who've experienced some type of loss or are already feeling one down figure that they don't have anything to lose, so they might as well go for it when a new venture presents itself.

It's true that risk-taking behavior can cause significant problems in a person's life such as gambling and unsafe driving. Obviously, it would be unwise to suggest that people who've never been attracted to these behaviors head out for a blow-out weekend in Vegas or get in a car and drive around town at 90 miles per hour. The kind of risk-taking I'm talking about applies to exploring new opportunities and expanding your horizons.

In my research on personality development in midlife Baby Boomers, I found that the people who followed what I called the "Straight and Narrow Way" were unhappier and felt less fulfilled than people who were willing to seek out change every now and then. It's not necessary to take a huge leap into the unknown to experience the boosts of being open to change. Instead, there are mini-steps you can take to shake up the status quo a little bit and try something new. If you're too worried about holding on to what you've got, though, you won't be able to experience these benefits.

The strategy of not fearing failure can also stretch your brain. Trying something new can help build new synapses. For example, if you use your right hand to control the computer mouse, try switching to your left hand. At first, it might be almost impossible, but over time, you'll strengthen your mental muscle as this new brain region gets a workout.  The Neurobics website provides a number of tips for brain exercises that give your synapses a workout.

At an exercise class I attended recently, the instructor got our attention at the beginning of class by announcing that "Our goal today is failure." He then went on to explain that the type of failure he was seeking was muscle failure. If we work our muscles to fatigue, they'll strengthen. But if we approach exercise on a day-to-day basis without trying to fail, our muscles will adapt and our efforts to improve our health will eventually become a waste of time.

How can you use failure to benefit your own life? Here are some pointers:

1. Don't get too hung up on holding onto what you've got. Instead of trying to protect the successes you have achieved, look for ways to challenge yourself beyond your comfort zone.

2. If you've become discouraged by your failures, don't let it get you down. Maybe you feel like you're already lost enough that nothing could entice you to take risks. Instead, realize that each challenge you've taken has helped give you mental toughness.

3. Try mini-steps toward change if the idea of change is too scary. Check out that Neurobics website and try some of their exercises. You'll see that stretching your brain can be the first step toward stretching your mental flexibility.

Change for the sake of change is not necessarily the goal here. But not being afraid to fall down once in a while can give you exactly the type of motivation that in the long run will help boost your fulfillment.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010






Success Redefined