Why Failure is the Secret of Your Success

Last Updated Sep 23, 2011 6:20 AM EDT

What does it take to succeed? Apparently a whole lot of failure. Paul Tough, in the New York Times, reports educational leaders who believe that knowing how to fail is the secret to success. Dominic Randolph, who leads an expensive, top ranked private school in New York City, is concerned about students that have known nothing but success. He states:

Whether it's the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful. Strangely, we've now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT's, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they're doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they're screwed, to be honest. I don't think they've grown the capacities to be able to handle that

These kids don't know how to fail because they've never done it. Therefore, when things get outside their comfort zone, or they first encounter people more capable than they are, they have no skills for dealing with it. We talk a lot about hard work, but school grading generally ends up being based on how well you did on the test, not about how much effort it took to get there or how persistent someone was.

But wait, don't we want to hire those people who are naturally brilliant and don't need a lot of hard work to be successful? Well, sure, except that if they don't know how to fail they are going to be awfully difficult to work with. We hear this complaint from those who employ Generation Y. Many of their parents (and their schools) saw to it that failure wasn't an option. Everything was fixed or extra credit given or forgotten lunches brought to school.

It's not a phenomenon limited to the newly graduated, though. One of my HR colleagues who, at the time, was head of HR for the Research & Development side of a a major pharmaceutical company, lamented to me how much he hates the whining at performance appraisal time. "I have a PhD from Harvard, so I can't be rated 'average,'" they would say. Never mind that everyone in the department had a PhD from a top ranked school. There wasn't a whole lot of willingness to find out what changes they needed to make, just the assertion that because they were considered exceptional in the past, they should still be considered exceptional today. An "average" performance rating was utterly devastating and difficult to get past.

It doesn't actually allow for a whole lot of growth when you refuse to entertain the idea that you should be doing something differently. Some people would rather find a new job rather than fix the problems they are having with their old jobs. Risk taking wasn't an option. If success wasn't guaranteed, they wouldn't try it.

At the other side of the academic world is David Levin, who is the head of KIPP, a network of charter schools, whose student's families don't earn even the $38,500 a year that Randolph's students pay in tuition. They focus on inner city, low income kids and have a stated goal of having 75% of their students achieve a 4 year degree. (They are currently at 33%, which is considerably higher than the 8 percent average for kids from low income families.) They haven't reached the stated goal, so Levin is open to the idea that he needs to do things different--accept that in some areas he's failed. Tough reports:

As Levin watched the progress of those KIPP alumni, he noticed something curious: the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class. Those skills weren't enough on their own to earn students a B.A., Levin knew. But for young people without the benefit of a lot of family resources, without the kind of safety net that their wealthier peers enjoyed, they seemed an indispensable part of making it to graduation day.

The ability to bounce back from failure is a key point. But, what if you've never failed? What if your parents fix every problem you ever have? What if you never gain this valuable skills? Then you're far less likely to have true success. If you've never had to try again and again, are you going to assume that the problem is unsolvable if you fail the first time?

Lots of people live charmed lives as long as their parents are pulling the strings or they put themselves in places where success is almost guaranteed. Except that anyone in the working world today knows that failure is not only a possibility it's a high probability. Businesses fail. Entire divisions get laid off, regardless of how brilliant any individual employee was. Sometimes it's just a matter of trying to figure out what the problem in the darn code is. If you're a one try and you're finished type of person, it doesn't matter how smart you are, you won't succeed.

And what happens if you're one of those people who has never failed? Never had to face disappointment and pick yourself up by your own bootstraps? It can be disasterous. But, to succeed you must be able to fail and recover from failure.

That means you must be willing to take risks, listen to others, and admit where you could improve. Arguing over a performance appraisal instead of listening to what your boss is trying to tell you are key indicators of someone who is unwilling to learn. (Not that all bosses' assessments are accurate, but those appraisals tell you what your boss is looking for. Disregard that at your own peril.)

Perhaps even those of us who are long finished with school can learn something from people who are trying to educate our children.

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Photo by aussiegall, Flickr cc 2.0

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