Challenging Success-via-Failure

The Tortoise and the Hype: Yes, failing has its upside; but it’s not necessarily the one we valorize.

By Carlin Flora, published on June 26, 2015 - last reviewed on December 2, 2016

Photo by Stephen Lewis

Failure is big. In books and lectures by business and self-help gurus, it’s touted as the secret to success. Venture capitalists insist they will fund only techies with ill-fated start-ups on their résumés. The final episode of the sitcom Parks and Recreation even took a soft gibe at the phenomenon by having its beloved bad-idea machine, Tom Haverford, finally achieve fame with the release of his book Failure: An American Success Story and its sequel, Failing to Fail. If you haven’t failed, the current mantra goes, you’re a loser.

Particularly in competitive fields within business and the arts, we are bombarded with the message that persistence pays off. You know the narrative as well as you know the Pledge of Allegiance: “On my 500th audition, I got my big break,” or “After getting rejected from every major publishing house, my memoir was a self-published bestseller,” or “I started 10 companies in 20 years, and the 11th just sold for $5 million.” For every star of a story like this, there are many more who prove the rule: Not everyone can make it. That’s not to say that people shouldn’t try hard or circumvent obstacles. But perhaps it’s time we acknowledge, collectively, that failing is common, no matter how hard you try. Often it’s the final word on particularly lofty dreams, not the roundabout way to realize them. Endurance and tenacity, admirable qualities though they may be, are minimum requirements, not guaranteed paths to glory. And, especially if you’ve devoted years of your life to a dream and have sacrificed other potential goals, relationships, and opportunities in its service, failing really, really hurts. 

“There is something cult-like in this idea that failure leads to success,” says Roman Krznaric, a founding faculty member of The School of Life in London and author of Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It. “It’s a modern obsession. It’s rational on one hand, in the evolutionary sense, because we depend on failure to thrive. Nature diversifies and then selects and amplifies traits that lead to success. We use this analogy in business, but of course in the evolutionary model there is a huge amount of collateral damage. Not everyone succeeds.” Implying otherwise, Krznaric adds, romanticizes failure. “I wouldn’t wish Vincent van Gogh’s life on anyone.” 

What escapes the “failure is the secret to success” preachers is not just a more realistic way of honoring the prevalence and pain of failing, but also its true potential as a human, and humanizing, experience. Being endlessly told that you’re not talented enough to be a comedian is not necessarily going to make you funnier. But it might fortify something else, something that is harder to exploit and harder to identify, yet inherently valuable: Your character.

Failure, Unvarnished

“In most cases, this rhetoric of failure leading to success conceals a big, unresolved fear of failure,” says Costica Bradatan, professor of humanities at Texas Tech University and author of Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers, “It’s an attempt at sugarcoating. Failure is brutal, ugly, and unpleasant. Whenever it happens, it is profoundly unsettling because it shatters your certainties; it makes you question your place in the world, your worthiness. It’s telling that, when experiencing major failures, some people contemplate, or even commit, suicide. That’s because failure sends shock waves to the deepest layers of our being,” he adds. “Sure, failure can also lead to success later on, but before that happens you have to face it now and on its own terms. If you don’t, your failure doesn’t lead you to anything.”

When Ally, now 28, was 12, she traveled each weekday from her home in Cape Cod to Boston to study with the Boston Ballet. Her parents grew tired of the commute and wanted to maximize her chances of becoming a prima ballerina, so they decided to send her to the North Carolina School of the Arts, a boarding school for exceptionally talented teens, when she was 14. “At the school, you were expected to act like an adult and to find a job with a company by the time you were 17 or 18. I went into it with the full intention of working my butt off to become a professional,” Ally says. “I did really well my first two years. Then, when I turned 16, I had a huge growth spurt and some minor injuries. I plateaued. I had had my heart set on this dream since I was a little girl. But my body had changed, and that was getting in the way of my future, and also my beliefs. A pillar of my belief system—that if you work hard your dream will materialize—was disproved. I believed that if I kept coming to class earlier and staying later, I could overcome the fact that my feet weren’t turned out. I could get myself to a certain level that way, but then I was up against talent I couldn’t beat.” 

Photo by Stephen Lewis

Midway through her junior year, Ally stopped dancing altogether. With the realization that her dream of joining a company would not come true, dancing lost its pleasures. “I felt embarrassed and resentful. It was devastating—a midlife crisis at age 17. My parents had invested so much in me. I felt deflated. I had no idea what to do next. It was ugly for everyone around me. It was even hard for me to see my sisters be happy. I was a shadow of myself. My identity was stripped from me.” 

Ally transferred to a traditional boarding school where she lived out “the worst year and a half of my life.” Behind academically, she had never imagined herself in college or contemplated careers aside from dance. She was friendless and loathed explaining why she had transferred—that she had failed at ballet. The hardest thing was seeing her former classmates  go on to pursue professional careers. She couldn’t bear to watch them on stage or to attend any dance performances, period. 

“In the midst of a failure,” says Krznaric, “what we don’t want to be told is, ‘Everything is going to be OK,’ or that there is a silver lining.” Furthermore, he points out, there are acutely good reasons for honoring negative feelings instead of desperately mopping them up with positive affirmations. 

Steven Hayes, the chair of the department of psychology at the University of Nevada, at Reno, is a leading practitioner and researcher of acceptance and commitment therapy, which uses techniques such as mindfulness to promote psychological flexibility. There is no guarantee that failure will lead to success, he says, but if approached head-on, with emotional openness and intellectual suppleness, it will lead to psychological growth.

Once we face failure, embracing it honestly and fully, its true gifts, which are subtle, nonflashy, and not easily quantifiable, can emerge. As New York Times journalist and commentator David Brooks writes in his recent book The Road to Character: “We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character.” Brooks points to the lives of diverse exemplary individuals whose shared trajectory is that they “had to go down to go up…to climb to the heights of character.” 

Cultivating Empathy

While rising out of the pain and humiliation of failure, one might first sense a new wellspring of compassion. “Empathy requires the ability to take another’s perspective plus the ability to feel what he feels,” says Hayes. “The con man has perspective, but not empathy. Failure can get us there. The poets tell us that sadness scoops out a place where love can reside, where we know more about what it’s like to be human.” 

Failure can increase empathy, Krznaric says, via one simple truth: Nearly everybody fails at some point, and no one feels as successful as he or she may appear to others. “The idea that you are not alone in your suffering is comforting.” Imagine two groups of people who have failed, he says: Those who turn into themselves and become self-hating and those who use the experience to give more to others. The latter group are generous with their failures—they use them to communicate more deeply with others. “If you’re in a room with someone who has recently experienced failure, you can connect to her without being patronizing.” Empathetic people tend to be more interested in others than in themselves, Krznaric adds, so cultivating curiosity can protect you from gazing inward and fixating on failure. 

Similarly, drawing on your reserves of empathy to view yourself with kinder eyes is an excellent way to take your failure less personally and harshly. “I ask my patients to turn the tables, to tell me how they would view me if I had failed the way they have,” says Nando Pelusi, a clinical  psychologist.“‘Would you look at me as a total failure?’ I ask. Of course they wouldn’t. They would admire my risk-taking, they would see the myriad forces that were against me, and in no way would they want to shun me. Looking at their hurt through the lens of someone else allows people to see how deeply negative they are being toward themselves.” 

Photo by Stephen Lewis

Several years ago, psychologists Laura King, at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and Joshua Hicks, at Texas A & M University, looked in depth at a group of people who had experienced serious disappointments in life, such as divorce after a lengthy marriage. They homed in on the idea of possible selves, the selves we imagine we would be (perhaps, a woman who grows old with her husband) had we not experienced particular failures or disappointments. Specifically, they looked at how losing a possible self affected two factors: a subject’s happiness and maturity levels over time. They found that those who scored high on both maturity (defined by the level of complexity with which one experiences oneself and the world) and happiness took a compassionate stance toward themselves. Those who tested high on maturity yet low on happiness tended to have an “unusually brutal” perspective on their former selves. Compassion and empathy toward others and ourselves, it would seem, thrive when our minds generate a broader and more elaborate view of our failure, while our psyches have meanwhile found new sources of excitement and meaning to engender day-to-day enjoyment of life.

Humility’s In, Entitlement’s Out

King and Hicks found that those subjects who scored low on maturity and happiness postfailure felt a sense of entitlement—and therefore a deep frustration over unmet expectations. Humility, though, is entitlement’s antidote, as it “may allow individuals to surrender the notion that they deserved something better from others, from themselves, and perhaps, quite simply, from life itself,” they write. Humble people are less self-occupied and value big-picture interpretations of situations. Being humbled by life experience might in fact be a requirement for maturity. Other studies, King and Hicks point out, have shown that humble individuals tend to be compassionate and forgiving and to have positive self-views. One team of researchers describes true humility as having “an exalted view of the capacities of others, rather than a negative view of oneself.” 

Why does failure humble us? Bradatan, who is writing a book tentatively called In Praise of Failure, says it dismantles the sense that we have a special destiny, while paradoxically allowing us to see how precious life is in and of itself. “To experience failure is to start seeing the cracks in the fabric of being. Whenever failure occurs, it reveals something fundamental about the human condition: that our existence is projected against a background of nothingness. Yet, that’s precisely the moment when, properly digested, failure turns out to be a blessing in disguise. For it is this constant threat that should make us aware of the extraordinariness of our existence: the miracle that we exist at all when there is no obvious reason that we should.” He adds: “Coming out of nothing, and returning there, human existence is a state of grace and has to be celebrated as such. And failure, with the sudden prospect of nothingness that it reveals, is important because it helps us understand precisely that.”  

Photo by Stephen Lewis

When entitlement gives way to realism, humility—and emotional relief—come rushing in. Krznaric recalls a friend who fell into a depression once he realized he wasn’t going to reach the top of the banking field as he’d long aspired to do. Though he was good, he wasn’t stellar. He felt much better after stepping back and accepting his place in the ecosystem. Only a few people can be at the top; the hierarchy demands there be many merely good bankers like him.

One aspect of humility that is particularly relevant to failure is the realization that success and—logic dictates—failure are not individually achieved outcomes. “The whole idea of the American dream is to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, but if you look at successful people, they’ve had the support of others and are often embedded in a community,” Krznaric says. The humble acknowledge when other people have helped them reach goals, so they see they should not take their failures personally either. Furthermore, the American dream narrative papers over the fact that we all have different starting points and have been given varied amounts of opportunity. It’s easier to score a run, as the saying goes, if you’re born on third base. Merit counts, but so does luck—a fact that should humble the entitled and comfort the disappointed.  

It is possible, however, warns Pelusi, for humility to shade into complacency or fear. “To me, humility is a behavioral manifestation of uncertainty,” he says. “That can be very adaptive, and it can create sensitivity and awareness. But too much humility could be crippling because it causes people to avoid appropriate risks.” In his book, Brooks describes how, absent such anxiety, humility and the immense feeling of gratitude that it arouses can awaken “vast energies…a capacity for ambition and action.” Ambition in this case is moti-vated by a desire to give back, not a desire for money, fame, and power. 

Maturity: Falling Down, Growing Up

“As you look at past failures with your current eyes, you realize not only that they’ve brought you closer to what you are now, but also that they’ve made you a more complex, perhaps an even more interesting person,” Bradatan says. “Failing an exam when you were 18 was catastrophic at the time, but it caused you to take a detour, which allowed you to have some experiences without which you cannot conceive of yourself today. The fabric of our lives is always made of such failures,” he adds. 

In their study, King and Hicks note that it is indeed painful to think about a lost possible self. It causes regrets, distress, and lower well-being. Not surprisingly, then, the more salient a possible self was for subjects, the less happy they were. However, subjects wh​o scored high on both maturity and happiness later ​​painted ​more ​vivid and richly detailed portrait​s​ of those lost possible selves​ than did others​, but reported that they did not think of them often. Essentially, those who have failed should ideally generate an elaborate picture of their loss, but then go on to seldom call that portrait to mind. Rather than shoving it out of their minds forcefully, they might first flesh out the counterfactual life—the life in which they reached their particular dream—to investigate which precise aspects of that life seem so desirable or important to them, and why. Then, with this self-knowledge, they can move on, without unproductive wallowing in what could have been.

Brooks describes how Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century British writer and lexicographer, dealt with his envy as a young adult: “He understood his own talents, and also understood that others were succeeding while he failed.” His strategy to overcome it was to first allow himself some pride in his own merit, and then, “turning in a more biblical direction,” Brooks writes, “he preached charity and mercy. The world is so bursting with sin and sorrow that ‘there are none to be envied.’ Everyone has some deep trouble in their lives. Almost no one truly enjoys their own achievements, since their desires are always leaping forward and torturing them with visions of goods unpossessed.” 

The secret to not thinking of unrealized dreams too much is finding new and more realistic ones. Freedom from regret, other research has shown, demands that we completely disengage from goals that clearly won’t be fulfilled and pursue ones that foster new possible selves that will motivate us going forward. That takes courage. People who are low on both happiness and maturity measures seem to have learned that it’s dangerous to hope and wish. Happy and mature people, on the other hand, King and Hicks found, acknowledge the risks associated with pursuing new goals, yet choose them wisely and take the leap.

When a romantic failure is fresh, we often think, “I’ll never let myself be vulnerable to rejection again,” Hayes says. “But on the other side of the tears, you’ll remember that love is important, and that the disappointment showed you how important it is to you. You move from ‘I’m never going to get hurt again’ to ‘I’m opening my heart again on purpose.’ ’’ 

Diving into new ventures and experiences will not guarantee that you’ll meet your soul mate or start the next Uber. But if you fail again, take heart in the idea that perennially successful people are missing out, too. “There is something superficial about success,” says Bradatan. “No doubt, success is important and necessary. Yet, in the long run, if it is not accompanied by failure, it often makes us arrogant, insensitive, and, eventually, shallow. The Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran said that success involves an inner impoverishment: ‘It makes us forget what we are, it deprives us of the torment of our limits.’ On the contrary, failure, if processed properly, can open us up to a wiser, richer, and more meaningful life.” 

Photo by Stephen Lewis

Which is what Alley, the erstwhile ballerina, eventually found. Failure did not make her a successful dancer, but at her new boarding school she fervently embraced her studies after realizing that the determination she’d developed as a dancer could be transferred to classwork. “Working hard to get good grades was cathartic for me,” she says. She eventually graduated from the London School of Economics and has had an enjoyable career in e-commerce, working for companies such as Estée Lauder and Macy’s. “I’ve already had this one big failure,” she says, “so as I progress in my career, I’m not afraid to propose ideas. I know these situations are not ‘do or die.’ I’m definitely more empathetic as well. When people I work with become aggressive, I don’t get defensive; I think about their motivations and passions, their points of view.” 

Lately, she’s thought about what she will say to her newborn son once he starts to express his aspirations. “I’m definitely less positive about the ‘reach for the stars’ rhetoric,” she says. “I’m a firm believer in hard work, but there are external factors that influence success, and sometimes it comes down to luck. I wouldn’t be happy if my son said, ‘I want to be a professional football player.’ Such a specific goal would be heartbreaking for me. I would prefer him to say, ‘I want to be great at football, the best I can be.’” 

When she was 17 and her failure was raw, it was painful for Ally to be told that her defeat would make her stronger. “It was bullshit for me. In retrospect, it’s true, but it sounded like such a cliché. What made the pain go away was the passing of time, while I focused on other things and found other interests.” And now that her new identity as a businesswoman, wife, and mother has solidified, one of those interests is going to ballet performances, where she loves what she sees, hears, and feels. 

* Name has been changed.

Carlin Flora is a science writer and the author of Friendfluence.

Coping When Crushed

Behold With Wonder. What is the wrong way to deal with failure when you’re in its grip? “Freezing in place,” says Steven Hayes at the University of Nevada, “or, conversely, running around chaotically.” Other behaviors shown to be counter-productive include avoiding your emotions, harshly judging your thoughts, rehashing the past, fearfully anticipating the future, and acting impulsively. The right way to cope, he says, is to accept your thoughts and feelings and view them with curiosity. At the same time, think consciously about what you really care about in life, and how you want to be in the world. Then, organize your behavior around those values you’ve identified as dear.

Endorse the Sadness. Clinical psychologist Nando Pelusi argues that forcing the idea that there could be benefits from failure and disappointment can prolong the process of acceptance. “As painful as they might be, failures can later result in better judgment and improved sensibilities,” he says. “I endorse the sadness and pain, but I would distinguish them from self-punishment or condemnation of the universe.” 

Don’t Globalize. Sometimes people adopt a dangerous mindset, such as thinking of themselves as tainted. “These ideas don’t occur in a vacuum,” Pelusi says. “They are part of a larger narrative about the self.” Some people see failure as a reflection of their essence and self-worth, and therefore feel intense shame. “When we look at that belief squarely, people often give it up. They begin to realize, ‘Maybe I failed, but I’m not a failure.’” Then, they are ready to embrace the idea that failure is always a risk when one pursues opportunities and a life of adventure as opposed to stasis. 

Be Vigilant, Not Panicky. For some, the most salient fear is failing to anticipate trends, as in the tech industry. “Why didn’t I think of Uber?” is a common refrain. “There’s a difference between anxiety and panic, and vigilance,” Pelusi says. “Anxiety creates a combination of scattered thinking and hyper-focus that is not as conducive to creativity as is a perusing and receptive attitude.” 

Don’t Judge. Because some failures are more subject to interpretation, examining the judgments of our social circle can lead to the realization that our “failures” do not follow our own standards, but rather those of others. Roman Krznaric, the author of Empathy, recalls a student who hated being a lawyer but felt—because of friends—that quitting his job would constitute a failure. New friends in new fields wouldn’t see such a move in the same light, allowing the attorney to change careers with less angst. 

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