Successful Failure

This will make me a success, right?

This will make me a success, right?

A professor of mine recently sent the class a link to this article about The Science of Failure and why it’s good for us to occasionally fail.

It might seem like a strange sentiment for a teacher to send to students, but it is one that I already happen to believe in so I clicked on the link thanks to my own confirmation bias. However, even as someone predisposed to accept the idea that failure is good for me, I found the article to be a little misleading. The premise of the article is that successful people actively seek out failure and in doing so that makes them more successful.

The author points out that many of the effects of failure happen on a subconscious level of our psyche and that this colors our perception of failure as something that happens to us, not because of us, and that we can really only recognize it in retrospect. In essence, the point is that no one tries to fail and that to succeed at failure is a paradox on more than just a semantic level.

She then goes on to give several examples of successful people who try to make more mistakes.

This is where I start to disagree with her argument. I don’t think it is just a matter of semantics to say that no one tries to make a mistake: mistakes, by their very nature, are unintentional phenomena. We don’t try to fail: we try to succeed and fall short. And yes, sometimes we shrug off responsibility for our failures: not enough time, not enough money, not enough experience, etc, but the real success comes from absorbing that failure, recognizing why it happened, and moving on.

The article is really about Anti-Fragility: the idea that it is possible to become more resilient as the result of our failures instead of being diminished by them. I agree that failure is important for success, but let me be more specific: I don’t believe that pursuing failure will make me a stronger or better person- I believe that accepting the possibility of failure allows me to to take bolder risks and that will make me a stronger or better person. The point is to take the risk: to push oneself beyond the safety of a “sure thing” and to accept that there might be consequences.

The article begins to come around to this point towards the end by suggesting that readers view decisions as experiments through which failure becomes useful information. I agree with that: really, the constructive use of setbacks is what makes successful people successful- not the setbacks themselves. Using failure constructively is a process that isn’t easy to learn and it isn’t easy to do once you’ve learned it. First you have to fail at something. That hurts. Sometimes that hurts a lot. Then you have to accept that you failed at it. Then you have to figure out what might have gone wrong. Then you have to try again. It’s a process and it takes time: successful people just have more practice at it and can move through the stages more quickly.

~ by Gwydhar Gebien on March 12, 2014.

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