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Does Failure Make You Stronger and More Persistent?

A look at the mythology of grit, challenge, and achievement

The cultural view that persistence accounts for success also understands a failure or setback as an opportunity to demonstrate grit; hence the adage, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”  This message about challenges is expressed in many ways,, including the inspirational videos called “Famous Failures” which have been seen and viewed by millions of people on the Internet in various incarnations.  The gist of the message —Michael Jordan cut from his high school basketball team, Walt Disney fired from a job because he lacked imagination—is threefold: 1) Don’t believe in the assessments of others; 2) Failure is just a pit stop; 3) Persevere and you’ll get there. 

The subtext is that failure inspires your efforts and that the more hard-won the prize, the sweeter the victory.  As a result, we like our heroes and heroines tested along the way.  If Thomas Edison had produced what became the modern light bulb the first time out —instead of the 3000th—the story wouldn’t be as satisfying or inspirational.

But does failure always inspire?

The question came to mind reading what turned out to be the final interview with Peter Matthiesssen in The New York Times.  Now this was a man who was no stranger to failure although his creative life was marked by great admiration, success and many awards.  Famously, his first novel was rejected by his agent with the following note: “Dear Peter, James Fennimore Cooper wrote this 150 years ago, only he wrote it better.”   Ouch. In the interview, the conversation turned again and again to Far Tortuga, the 1975 book he held closest to his heart.  It had been a failure, rejected by critics and readers alike.  All these years later —nearly forty—it was clear that this failure had lost none of its sting.

Was Matthiessen’s response remarkable?  Or is the cultural trope about failure simply hogwash?  The answer is more complicated than not.

Let’s go back to Edison and the light bulb and the 3000 “failures” that preceded his achievement.  These “failures” were, in fact, rigorous experiments in the effort to find the right material for the filament, a process which Edison took in stride but which he noted discouraged his co-workers mightily.  These efforts weren’t “failures” in the conventional sense, as is clear to any of us who have perfected a skill through trial and error —whether it’s baking, cooking, building, gardening, or anything else—which is a very different kind of failure than falling flat on your face.  Not surprisingly, this observation is backed up by research: In the pursuit of learning or mastery goals, which focus on the acquisition of new skills or learning, setbacks actually increase motivation.  Edison appears to have approached the perfecting of the light bulb as a learning goal and, in that mindset, failures actually presented an opportunity for refinement of his ideas.

If Edison had approached the task as a performance goal — had he been motivated by showing himself to be the smartest and fastest improver of the light bulb in New Jersey —he might have been deterred by all those failed efforts as his colleagues clearly were.  When you set a performance goal, your efforts are directed toward demonstrating your ability, and failures and setbacks prove the very opposite of your intention. Research shows that most people, contrary to the myths about setbacks, are deterred by them in the context of a performance goal, and begin to feel helpless and hopeless in their wake..  But some people aren't.  Why is that? 

Is it all about mindset and how you frame your goal?  Or is it about your personality and how well you cope with the feelings induced by failure?  Or does it have to do with your expectations about whether this setback is temporary and will ultimately yield to success?  Does failure really inspire grit? Here’s where the terrain gets a bit tricky.  

A series of experiments by Joachim Brunstein and Peter M. Gollwitzer took a look at what happened when people with a very specific goal that was tied into their self-identity—in this case, students with the goal of becoming a doctor or a computer scientist—experienced a setback or failure that reflected on that goal.  What they found was that a failure actually motivated the participants to do well on another test which was relevant to becoming a doctor or computer scientist. But a failure in an area unrelated to their goal did nothing to motivate them and, similarly, their motivation didn’t extend to another test that had no relevance to their goal.  It appeared that failure per wasn’t the motivating factor.  Instead, the students were motivated by the need to “reassure themselves that they are capable of achieving the self-definition.” 

Heidi Grant and Carol S. Dweck in a later series of experiments took a closer look at performance goals, trying to distinguish among them.  They too agreed that learning goals “predicted active coping, sustained motivation, and higher achievement in the face of challenge.”  They posited that there were three types of performance goals.

            1. Goals that are linked to validating the self

            These are the goals you set to prove yourself and your abilities and talents.  You can fill in whatever you wish for “ability”; it could be smart, innovative, entrepreneurial, creative or anything else.  The goal could be becoming a manager or a vice-president of a company in a record amount of time; making twice as money in three years as you do today; writing a bestseller, getting a television show, or anything that reflects the person you consider “you.”

            2.  Goals that are explicitly normative in nature

            These are goals that compare you to other people, proving that you are smarter or more able “than” the person next to you, or any other kind of competition.

            3.  Goals that are focused on obtaining a positive outcome

            While these goals may have to do with ability, they don’t reflect ability in the same way as validation goals since it’s the outcome that matters.

What Grant and Dweck found was that setbacks affected people differently depending on the kind of performance goal it was.  It turned out to be true that when things were going swimmingly, people who’d set goals that validated ability thrived but that they withdrew and turned in poor performances when things went south.  So much for failure as a stimulant for grit.  Interestingly, those pursuing normative goals —the “smarter than” scenario— weren’t affected by failure; the researchers suggested that these people tended to deny how poorly they’d performed in relationship to others so were able to soldier forth anyway.  Outcome goals —which straddle the two categories of learning and performance goals because they share aspects of both—could be affected positively and negatively by failure, resulting in either a loss of motivation or proactive behavior.  This led the researchers to conclude that setting a goal of doing well “is not in itself a good predictor of responses to failure.”

So it seems that whether or not a failure inspires has to do with both the nature of the goal and the underlying motivations.

Then, too, personality and expectation factor in.  People who are oriented toward approach tend not to be affected by failure in the same ways as those who are inherently focused on avoiding bad outcomes.  As Charles S. Carver and Michael F. Scheier write, when individuals encounter a setback or challenge to their efforts, “people presumably depend heavily on their memories of prior outcomes in similar situations.” These expectations are highly personal in the sense that they depend on experience (a prior outcome could make you very confident about your future success or could convince you that your efforts were doomed), personality, disposition (are you inclined to be pessimistic or optimistic about your endeavors?), and your ability to manage the negative emotions inevitably aroused by failure.

 So is failure inspirational?  Not always.

 Copyright© Peg Streep 2014

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Himmelman, Jeff, “Peter Matthiessen’s Homecoming,” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/06/magazine/peter-matthiessens-homegoing.html?_r=0

Brunstein, Joachim and Peter M. Gollwitzer, “Effects of Failure on Subsequent Performance: The Important of Self-Defining Goals,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1996), vol. 70, no.2: 395-407.

Grant, Heidi and Carol S. Dweck, “Clarifying Achievement Goals and their Impact,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2003), vol.85, no.3: 541-555.

Carver, Charles S. and Michael F. Scheier, On the Self-Regulation of Behavior. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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