Want to Succeed? Let Yourself Fail


We’ve all heard the catch phrases attributed to people we envy for being the most successful:  “failure is not an option”;  “Never settle for anything less than perfect”.  We tend to think of our heroes as magically ascending the ladder of success without any setbacks along the way, but is this really true?  According to what I’ve read this week, no.

An article in Time magazine, “Back to School:  Why Grit Is More Important than Good Grades”, argues that failure is, in the long run, a key to success.  The author states that in an “ultra-competitive academic environment, the idea of failure — even a small, temporary failure — can be very scary, to students and parents alike.”  I would argue that while this is definitely the case in schools, it is also true for adults trying to earn a living in our struggling economy.  However, the article goes on to say that, “experiencing failure and adversity, researchers have found, is a critical part of building character. Recent research by a team of psychologists led by Mark Seery of the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, found that adults who had experienced little or no adversity growing up were actually less happy and confident than those who had experienced a few significant setbacks in childhood. Overcoming those obstacles, the researchers hypothesized, “could teach effective coping skills, help engage social support networks, create a sense of mastery over past adversity, [and] foster beliefs in the ability to cope successfully in the future.”

This idea is supported by a book I’m reading, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck, a Psychology professor at Stanford.  Dweck studied people’s attitudes about their own intelligence and found those who though of intelligence as being “fixed”, (I’m as smart now as I’ll ever be and there’s nothing I can do about it) tended to give up easily when they failed.  However, those with what Dweck identified as a “growth mindset” viewed their failures as temporary setbacks, even learning opportunities.  She  says that if we look at our heroes, we will find that, contrary to popular myths about innate talent and luck, they succeeded by using their failures as opportunities to learn and grow, and they kept on trying until they succeeded.

So how do we cultivate a “growth mindset?”  Dweck says to think of times that others did better and ask if they really were more talented or just more tenacious.  Identify times when you have had a fixed mindset and brainstorm ways to change it.  She also says to stop telling our kids that they’re smart, citing research that shows that praising kids’ intelligence actually LOWERS their IQ scores!  Instead, she says we should praise effort, reinforcing the idea that trying again and learning from mistakes is more important than innate ability.
While being open to failure is scary (and in the case of earning a living, not always economically feasible), it seems to be a necessary component of success.  Most important is to remember that any failures are not indicators of a lack of ability, but merely an opportunity to learn and grow, paving the way for success in the future.