The Surprising Secret of Success is Failure

The blueprint for successful failure has no straight lines. Nor is it guaranteed.

At 77, I’ve long-since quit stewing and being embarrassed over the
fact that I was expelled from college for both social and academic
reasons when I was a freshman. Unlike Bob Sternberg,
who blew it in the fourth grade, I blew it my first year of college.
Fact of the matter, aside from the woman I married and our three
daughters, that freshman failure was one of the best things that ever
happened to me.

That failure made “I’ll show ‘em” one of the central motivations of
my life. I took a mandatory year off, worked in a Detroit factory, and
resolved never to find myself in that situation again. So in due time, I
knocked off a baccalaureate degree, a masters of divinity from a
theological seminary, most of a master’s in theology, an M.A. from the
University of Colorado and a PhD from the University of Minnesota. And
my careers, most anyone would say, have been marked by success—and great
fun. Freud wrote that the “normal healthy life” includes work, love and
play. That was a swell blueprint for me.

I tell this story with obvious relish, recognizing that I’m not the
only one who wrested success out of profound failure. But I’m also aware
that research has shown that failure can have devastating consequences
for psychological well-being. There’s a lot of evidence suggesting that
rejection can precipitate a psychological state resembling physical
pain, often followed by long-term isolation. You expect psychologists to
look for the grim human experience and the abnormal, and that’s what
the early research revealed.

However, a fascinating series of studies from 2007 issued a strong
caveat to that early research, and also explained my motivation in
spades. Jon Maner of Florida State and a number of his colleagues asked
whether social exclusion motivates interpersonal reconnection. Six
different studies found that the experience of social exclusion
increases the motivation to forge social bonds, but . . . with new
sources of affiliation. Although it was possible for me to return to the
college that expelled me, I chose to go elsewhere.

In retrospect, much of my life has been pure luck. Most probably
don’t have the opportunities I was given, much less the mentors who
walked into my life, gave me clear direction and were not at all shy
about delivering “shape up” lessons.

Merely changing schools, however, did not necessarily imply a “successful failure.” Conventional wisdom
says that we learn from failure. That’s far from the truth. Most of the
time, we don’t. Failure anxiety rules us. We jump to conclusions,
rationalize the hell out of failure to make it look good, ignore or
distort feedback and, significantly, fail to separate skill from pure
luck.

John F. Kennedy once said that “Victory has a thousand fathers, but
defeat is an orphan.” We are quick to take credit for success and deny
responsibility for failure. Don’t think that the failure was anyone’s
but mine or that the success was solely about my own ability. Again,
much of it was luck. Being born a White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant male in
the 1930’s to a family that became moderately well-off, a family willing
to fund experiences in one of the culturally richest cities of the
world (Detroit in the thirties, forties and fifties), educated in a
school system that provided experiences students would drool over today,
attending a prominent church that pointed its kids to rich and
fulfilling experiences and meeting people who took an interest in me,
often for no discernible reason, played a large part in my successes.
Furthermore, my success over that freshman failure certainly failed to
inoculate me against more failure. That’s reality.

Still, motivation, ability and just gutting it out play a huge role
in anyone’s life of successful failure. So along the way, I developed
the learning competencies that support future success. Though invariably
curious, I had to build those performance virtues of persistence,
self-regulation, responsibility and what Duckworth calls grit. My small
wins responded to the multiplier effect and my successes become more
obvious. I found, as Paul Tough has put it so eloquently, that
cultivating those strengths is a reliable path to “the good life,” a
life not just happy, but meaningful and fulfilling.

Successful failure is not easily won. It’s hard work. But lest you be
put off by the seeming demands of success, it’s important to say that I
count many friends among my list of successful failures. People who
rose to take advantage of their failures. I’ve gotten a lot out of my
freshman failure. So maybe the failure never will be finally forgotten,
and that’s not such a bad thing. Yeah, I seriously doubt that it’s
possible to be successful without real failure. And Steve Jobs is the
classic example of that truth.

Note: John K. Maner, DeWall, Baumeister, Schall, Does Social Exclusion Motivate Interpersonal Reconnection? Resolving the “Porcupine Problem.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007, Vol. 92, No. 1, 42 – 55.

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