By Ray Williams
November 6, 2021
Our society worships success and even demands it. Success defines the person and the organization. It is the way we define goal attainments. Success is also defined by its polar opposite, failure. The commonly held view is that failure is to be avoided because success is to be achieved, and both cannot coexist. Failure is not just the absence of success, it is a concept, a belief and outcome that occupies an exalted place in our lives.
We experience failure early in life, first in our families and then in elementary school, quickly realizing how it can affect our educational progress. Generations of students live in fear of failing tests, subjects, and, ultimately this early, first experience with failure can define our lives. We embrace the notion that nothing but perfection will suffice, as failure renders our professional efforts, view of accomplishment, and sense of ourselves imperfect.
In the early 19th Century, the term failure was commonly used to describe a “breaking in business,” or going broke or bankrupt. Over time, this purely commercial definition evolved to pertain to personal deficiency, as well as tangible accomplishment or moral behavior. How did this change occur? How did one’s financial inadequacy morph into personal inadequacy?
Scott A. Sandler, in his book Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, argues that, in part, this evolution reflects the interpretation of the American dream in 19thCentury America. He points out that the failures among us “embody the American fear that our fondest hopes and our worst nightmares may be one and the same….the [American] dream that equates freedom with success…could neither exist nor endure without failure.” We need failure, “the word and the person…to sort out our own defeats and dreams.” Put in contemporary Darwinian contrast, “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”
The dictionary defines failure in three ways or contexts: “a lack of success in doing something;” “something you should have done;” and “something not working as it should work.” Of the three definitions, the first seems to have the greatest credence in our society.
Our view of failure is molded by specific contexts. For example, in the pharmaceutical industry, the clinical failure rate for drugs entering phase II testing was reported to be 81% for 50 illustrative compounds that entered clinical testing between 1993-2004. Major baseball league batters fail to hit the ball 75% of the time (the overall major league baseball batting average for 2020 was 0.253 ). Meteorologists have an overall error rate for predicting precipitation over three days of 15%, with precipitation predicted but not observed 43% of the time, and precipitation observed but not predicted 10% of the time for San Francisco, the last three months of 2011, although those predictions have improved since then. So failure is different for different contexts.
Failure is, of course, part of the scientific method. All well designed experiments are framed in terms of the null hypothesis, which more often turns out to hold rather than its alternate. No matter how insightful an investigator is believed to have been in retrospect, the scientific approach is one of informed trial and error in the best of circumstances, and, therefore, invariably subject to the play of chance. The percentage of scientific research studies that have resulted in a failure is much higher than generally known, but rarely discussed. Research and innovation in science require failure, which must be taught, nurtured, understood, and incorporated in one’s scientific paradigm. Hence, publishing negative trial outcomes is essential for the scientific enterprise, a fact that had not been widely accepted by major journals until relatively recently.
From an even broader, more philosophical perspective, failure has great importance for a number of reasons, according to Costaca Bradatan, writing in the New York Times. He argues:
- “Failure allows us to see our existence in its naked condition. Whenever it occurs, failure reveals just how close our existence is to its opposite. Out of our survival instinct, or plain sightlessness, we tend to see the world as a solid, reliable, even indestructible place. And we find it extremely difficult to conceive of that world existing without us.”
- “Our capacity to fail is essential to what we are. We need to preserve, cultivate, even treasure this capacity. It is crucial that we remain fundamentally imperfect, incomplete, erring creatures; in other words, that there is always a gap left between what we are and what we can be.”
- “We are designed to fail. No matter how successful our lives turn out to be, how smart, industrious or diligent we are, the same end awaits us all: “biological failure.” The “existential threat” of that failure has been with us all along, though in order to survive in a state of relative contentment, most of us have pretended not to see it. Our pretense, however, has never stopped us from moving toward our destination; faster and faster, ‘in inverse ratio to the square of the distance from death,’ as Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich expertly describes the process.”
According to UC Berkeley professor Martin Covington, the fear of failure is directly linked to your self-worth. Covington found in his research published in his book, Self-Esteem and Failure in School: Analysis and Policy Implications that students will put themselves through unbelievable psychological machinations in order to avoid failure and maintain the sense that they are worthy. Fortunately, the research also provides tips for educators to help students deal with feelings of failure—and help them to fulfill their true potential. Covington’s years of research found that one way people protect their self-worth is by believing they are competent and making others believe it as well.
Our ability to achieve is critical to maintaining self-worth. This is particularly true in competitive situations such the workplace. A dysfunctional belief can mean that one is not able and, therefore, not worthy. If a person doesn’t believe he or she has the ability to succeed—or if repeated failures diminish that belief—then that person will begin, consciously or not, to engage in practices or make excuses in order to preserve his or her self-worth both in his or her own eyes and in the eyes of others. The more intense the effort behind the failure, the more important the excuses or defense mechanisms become.
How Failure Creates Problems for Us
Guy Winch, writing in Psychology Today cites a number of research perspectives about failure. Here are some of them:
- Failure at reaching a goal will make it seem unattainable. In one research study, participants were asked to kick a football over a goalpost on a field that had no distance markers from the goalpost and they were not told how high the goalpost was. The participants who guessed that the goalpost was further away and higher were more failed in comparison with those who saw it closer and lower. The researchers proposed that failure can distort your perception of your goals and makes them seem more unattainable.
- Failure can develop a feeling of helplessness. Failure causes pain. Your mind responds to this pain by giving up trying so you don’t feel the pain again. And feeling helpless or not being to do the task gives you an out.
- Failing at something can create an unconscious “fear of failure.” Most of our fears of failure are not conscious which means that you may not be actually dealing with something that is real or not. .
- Fear of failure can lead to self-sabotaging your success. You can protect yourself from the anticipated pain of failure by creating excuses and reasons that justify why you failed. For example, external rationalizations may be “I wasn’t feeling well,” or “I was upset because of an argument with my friend,” or a famous one for students, “the professor just doesn’t like me.” The trouble with these justifications is that they can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies because they sabotage your efforts and increase your likelihood of failure.
- The pressure to succeed increases anxiety and can cause you to “choke.” When an athlete misses a crucial play or singer or musician misses a desired sound, or speaker is at a loss for words, performance anxiety causes them to choke. Choking happens when you overanalyze something you know how to do.
The Shame of Failure
John Atkinson, writing in Psychological Review argues there’s a link between the two basic achievement motives, need for achievement and fear of failure. Atkinson portrayed need for achievement as “the capacity to feel pride in accomplishment” and fear of failure as “the capacity or propensity to experience shame upon failure.”
Atkinson’s proposition that shame underlies fear of failure has been a part of the literature for many years, but until the present research, this proposition had not been empirically documented. For individuals high in fear of failure, achievement events are not simply opportunities to learn, improve on one’s competence, or compete against others. Instead, they are threatening, judgment-oriented experiences that put one’s entire self on the line.
Shame is a painful emotion, and thus, it is not surprising that individuals high in fear of failure orient to and seek to avoid failure in achievement situations. Indeed, when possible, such individuals seek to select themselves out of achievement situations in the first place. Ironically, and poignantly, in so doing, those high in fear of failure keep themselves from the mistakes and failures that many achievement motivation theorists view as the grist for the mill of competence development.
In essence, the avoidance of mistakes and failures stunts the growth and maturation of persons high in fear of failure, which, over time, merely leads to more mistakes and failures. As such, the avoidance of failure is likely to be a self-perpetuating process in that the very process of avoiding failure is likely to serve a role in maintaining and exacerbating the tendency to avoid failure.
Holly A. McGregor and Andrew J. Elliot writing in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin conclude, based on their research that demonstrates a link between the two basic achievement motives, need for achievement and fear of failure, and specific emotions.
For individuals high in fear of failure, achievement events are not simply opportunities to learn, improve on one’s competence, or compete against others. Instead, they are threatening, judgment-oriented experiences that put one’s entire self on the line and that put one’s sense of relational security in jeopardy. In short, they are potentially shameful events.
Shame is a painful emotion, and thus, it is not surprising that individuals high in fear of failure orient to and seek to avoid failure in achievement situations. Indeed, when possible, such individuals seek to select themselves out of achievement situations in the first place. Ironically, and poignantly, in so doing, those high in fear of failure keep themselves from the mistakes and failures that many achievement motivation theorists view as the grist for the mill of competence development. In essence, the avoidance of mistakes and failures stunts the growth and maturation of persons high in fear of failure, which, over time, merely leads to more mistakes and failures. As such, the avoidance of failure is likely to be a self-perpetuating process in that the very process of avoiding failure is likely to serve a role in maintaining and exacerbating the tendency to avoid failure.
Since 2010 Brené Brown has been an ambassador on the world stage for the virtues of vulnerability and imperfection with the second most watched TED Talk of all time: The Power of Vulnerability and the release of her first book The Gifts of Imperfection, a New York Times Best Seller.
Brown says shame is the conviction that you will never be good enough, and that because of your flaws, and failures you’re not lovable and will never belong.
She posits that in order to do great things in any aspect of our lives and live a more fulfilling life, it is necessary to accept ourselves and let our guard down. Part of the challenge of this is that we also become more vulnerable to failing.
We can’t admit we’re wrong
It always helps to add some context about the subconscious biases we have in our heads about failure. Here is a few:
- We don’t admit our failures. Dale T. Miller in his article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology argues “We don’t hesitate to talk about our successes, attributing them to internal factors such as how much effort we put in, the skills we have or our past experience.” Miller argues we don’t like to admit to failure. Research by Irene Frieze and Bernard Weiner published in the journal Personality, has shown that we are more likely to blame failure on external factors like luck or the difficulty of the task or shifting responsibility to someone else.
- Failure makes us less generous. According to research by A. M. Isen, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology, after succeeding at a task, the positive reinforcement makes us more likely to be more generous and helpful to others. If we fail at a task first, however, we’re less likely to want to help others, according to research by L Berkowitz and l W. H. Connor published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
- We literally can’t admit that we’re wrong. In Being Wrong, author Kathryn Schulz explains the problem of error blindness: “… the sentence ‘I am wrong’ describes a logical impossibility. As soon as we know that we are wrong, we aren’t wrong anymore, since to recognize a belief as false is to stop believing it. Thus we can only say ‘I was wrong.’” So even for those of us who try hard to admit our mistakes, it’s almost impossible for us to do so, at least in the present: “… we can be wrong, or we can know it, but we can’t do both at the same time.”
How to Deal with Failure
The following is a collection of ideas from research and practices that can help.
- Become mindful of your self-talk and challenge thoughts about failure. This involves changing your mindset, and the first step in doing that is to recognize when your mindset is negative.For example, a middle-aged writer might get a rejection for the umpteenth time and think, “Maybe I’m too old to start a writing career.” But if I remind myself that this is my fixed mindset talking, I could argue back by stating, “Then again, you’re never too old to learn a new skill,” or “Lots of successful writers started their career at my age or even later.”
- Focus on the process, as well as the outcome. When you get rejected, you may just want to throw your hands up and say, “I just wasted all of that time for nothing. What’s the point!” But then you can remind yourself that “failure” is just another word for “learning.” Even though the outcome wasn’t what you wanted, you still benefited from the process.
- Embrace “productive failure.”The idea here is that instead of carefully teaching people how to do something, you let them loose on a new task with only the minimum of guidance. As Sunita G. Chowrira at the University of British Columbia and her colleagues explain in a recent paper, “While students often fail to produce satisfactory solutions (hence ‘Failure’), these attempts help learners encode key features and learn better from subsequent instruction (hence ‘Productive’).” Productive failure has been found to have benefits in all kinds of teaching situations, including classrooms. In this particular study, Chowrira and her team divided first year biology students into two groups. One received standard instruction on various topics. The other group read a relevant chapter prior to the class, then embarked on challenges in small groups. They received feedback immediately afterwards, followed by instruction on any gaps in their understanding. This second group went on to do better at subsequent exams, and this was especially true for low-performing students. A productive failure approach “has the potential to transform large introductory university courses,” the team concluded. For an individual, there are lessons, too: those people who prefer to throw themselves at a new task rather than carefully reading the instructions first may well “fail” more (and anyone who’s ever tried this approach with a piece of flatpack furniture knows how bad that can be), but learn more and do better next time.
- Develop a growth mindset. Your brain can change by changing your mindset. Research by Carole Dweck published in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success describes her research which found that teaching children about the brain’s malleable quality led them to adopt a growth mindset in school, boosted their motivation, and made them more resilient to failure. Her TED Talk by growth mindset expert, Carol Dweck is a great introduction to the concept.
- Focus on the internal reasons for your pursuits. People with a fixed mindset excessively focus on measuring their success by winning others’ approval and admiration. They want to prove their talent, not improve it. People who do this are setting themselves up for disappointment and pain, because failure will happen. Remind yourself that you are doing something for pleasure, fulfillment, creativity and learning.
- Praise others for their efforts. In addition to changing your own mindset, consider paying it forward and changing the mindset of those around you. When a child brings home straight A’s and her parents say, “Wow, you must be a genius,” they are unknowingly encouraging her to adopt a fixed mindset. Instead, if the parents were to say, “Wow, you must have worked really hard in your classes,” they would be encouraging a growth mindset. Research shows that praising children for their effort (not their inherent talent) helps them cope with future failure and improves their performance. So the next time you praise someone for their success—be it a child or adult—highlight their effort, not their talent.
- View decisions as experiments. Recognising our mistakes is almost impossible, according to Kathryn Schulz. Since it’s so common for us to brush aside or forget our failures, a better way to learn from when we go wrong might be this approach from Zen Habits author, Leo Babauta:“See decisions not as final choices, but experiments. The anxiety (and paralysis) comes when people are worried about making the perfect choice. And worried about making the wrong choice. Those are two outcomes that aren’t necessary to make a decision, because if we conduct an experiment, we’re just trying to see what happens.”
- Start a journal. Start documenting all of your mistakes. Keep track of where these are happening: at work, at home, with friends. Did you ignore your intuition and go with a safe option, only to regret it later? Or did you take a risk that didn’t pan out? Keep a detailed account of what happened so you can start to see patterns in where you’re making mistakes and which ones you’re repeating too often.
- Separate your accomplishments from your identity. There’s a difference between doing and being. Failing at something doesn’t mean you are a failure. And when you die people will remember you for the kind of person you are, not all your accomplishments.
- Stop dwelling on your failures. Obsessing over your failure will not change the outcome. In fact, it will only intensify the outcome, trapping you in an emotional doom-loop that disables you from moving on. You cannot change the past, but you can shape your future.
- Embrace your emotions with mindfulness. Failure is accompanied by a variety of emotions; embarrassment, anxiety, anger, sadness, and shame to name a few. Those feelings are uncomfortable and many people will do anything they can to escape feeling emotional discomfort. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making says you shouldn’t try to slough off feeling bad after failure. Researchers discovered that thinking about your emotions—rather than the failure itself—is most helpful. Allowing yourself to feel bad is motivating. It can help you work harder to find better solutions so that you’ll improve next time. So go ahead embrace your emotions. Acknowledge how you’re feeling and let yourself feel bad for a bit. Label your emotions and allow yourself to experience them.
- Recognize and avoid unhealthy ways to reduce the pain of failure. You might be tempted to say, “I didn’t actually want that job anyway,” but minimizing your pain won’t make it go away. Distracting yourself or filling the void you feel with food or alcohol won’t heal your pain either. Those things will only provide you with some temporary relief. Recognize the unhealthy ways you try to avoid or minimize pain in your life. Turning to coping skills that do more harm than good will only make your situation worse.
- Develop realistic thoughts about failure. A 2010 study found that people were more likely to sabotage themselves when they were convinced a mistake made them a total failure. In one experiment, dieters who were fed pizza were told they’d completely blown their diets. Those who thought they were complete failures immediately ate 50 percent more cookies than individuals who weren’t dieting.
- Create a plan for moving forward. Replaying your failure in your mind over and over again won’t do you any good. Don’t allow yourself to ruminate on all the things that went wrong. Dwelling on your problems or rehashing your mistakes will keep you stuck. Instead, think about what you’ll do differently next time. Create a plan that will help you put the information you gained from failing into practice.
- Have a sense of humor about your failures and don’t take yourself so seriously People cope with failures and stress in life in a variety of ways ranging from distraction to getting social support. But what are the most effective strategies? New research from the University of Kent has revealed that positive reframing, acceptance and humor are the most effective coping strategies for people dealing with failures. In a paper published by the international journal Anxiety, Stress & Coping, Joachim Stoeber and Dr. Dirk Janssen from the University’s School of Psychology describe a diary study that found these three strategies to be most effective in dealing with small failures and setbacks, and helping people to keep up their spirits and feel satisfied at the end of the day. For decades, researchers have explored how humor helps patients relieve stress and heal. Melissa B. Wanzer, EdD, professor of communication studies at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., has taken it one step further, with her research on how humor helps medical professionals cope with their difficult jobs. She also looked at how humor affects the elderly and how it can increase communication in the workplace and in the classroom. Wanzer has found humor to be beneficial in other areas as well. “If employees view their managers as humor-oriented, they also view them as more effective,” notes Wanzer. “Employees also reported higher job satisfaction when they worked for someone who was more humor-oriented and used humor effectively and appropriately.” Wanzer and her colleagues found that humor is an effective way to cope with on-the-job stress – again, when used appropriately.
The Importance of Failure in Raising and Educating Children
Dr. Joseph Loscalzo, of Harvard Medical School argues in his article in the journal Circulation, that discouraging criticism (in the best case) and objective failure (in the worst case) will impair students’ effective learning, the educational establishment has evolved to minimize the likelihood that students can fail—a course, or a grade, or a program. Maintaining the student’s self-esteem at all costs has been the mantra of American public education now for some time, and while it has had its benefits, especially for students who would be severely defeated by even modest failure, it has had its disadvantages, as well, creating a self-affirming culture of narcissism among many students.
Loscalzo argues “While encouragement is clearly important in early education and constructive, positive criticism essential for optimizing the learning experience, there comes a time in each person’s development at which clear criticism and the risk of true failure need to be conveyed. The complexity of life, biologically and experientially, is rife with uncertainty, and in the course of its execution, rich with the possibility of failure—to meet an aspiration or achieve a goal. As parents, educators, and role models, we are not meeting our obligations to trainees unless we instruct them in the importance of failure, how to react to it, and, most importantly, how to learn from it.”
“Parents are a really critical force in child development when you think about how motivation and mindsets develop,” says Kyla Haimovitz, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. She coauthored the study, published in Psychological Science with colleague Carol Dweck, who pioneered research on mindsets. “Parents have this powerful effect really early on and throughout childhood to send messages about what is failure, how to respond to it.”
Although there’s been a lot of research on how these forces play out, relatively little looks at what parents can do to motivate their kids in school, Haimovitz says. This study begins filling that gap.
“The more parents believed that failure is debilitating, the more likely their children were to see them as concerned with their performance outcomes and grades rather than their learning and improvement,” the study found.
So what can teachers do to help their students become success- rather than failure-oriented?
There are no easy answers and not all the research-based suggestions below will work with each kind of failure-orientation. The key is for teachers to know their students well and recognize when they are starting to engage in failure-based behavior.
- Emphasize effort over ability. Thanks to Carol Dweck’s research on mindsets, many teachers have started to give more importance to students’ efforts rather than their “innate” ability. This is particularly important for teachers of upper elementary students through university as research has shown that as children get older, they tend to value ability over effort. One way to encourage effort is to provide specific feedback to students that recognizes and praises effort. Studies have shown that students who receive this kind of feedback are not only more motivated to succeed, but also believe that they can succeed. However, be careful not to tell students to try harder if they failed, particularly if a lot of effort was expended to succeed. Otherwise, they may begin to doubt their abilities and eventually become failure-avoidant or accepting.
- Encourage students to practice self-compassion when they fail. Covington suggests that at the heart of the fear of failure is a push-pull between self-acceptance and being able to see ourselves as we really are. This is where self-compassion can help. Kristin Neff writes in her book Self-Compassion that in order for self-compassion to be effective, we have to first realize that, “Our true value lies in the core experience of being a conscious being who feels and perceives.” In other words, rather than making our self-worth contingent on categories such as academic success, appearance, or popularity, we must value ourselves solely for the fact that we are human beings and accept that failure is part of the human experience. When we do that, it is easier for us to extend compassion to ourselves when we fail. Rather than beating ourselves up for not being perfect in something like academics—as the Overstriver might do—we practice self-talk that is kind and compassionate. This makes it easier to look realistically at what caused the failure and then consider what can be done to improve next time. Research has found that people who practice self-compassion recover more quickly from failure and are more likely to try new things—mainly because they know they won’t face a negative barrage of self-talk if they fail.
- Children should be allowed to make mistakes. A study conducted at Queensland University of Technology by clinical psychologist Dr Judith Locke and associates demonstrates the harmful effects of so-called “over-parenting”. “Over-parenting”, in this case, is defined as a parent’s “misguided attempt to improve their child’s current and future personal and academic success.” In interviewing psychologists, guidance counsellors and teachers, the authors found that such over-parenting had the potential to ruin a child’s confidence and undermine an education in independence. Students need to suffer setbacks, says Dr. Locke, in order to learn important life skills such as responsibility, organization, manners, restraint, and foresight. Letting our kids struggle is a difficult gift to give – but it’s a vital one. In her best-selling book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, American clinical psychologist Dr. Wendy Mogel suggests that children insulated from unpleasant situations or challenges become less capable of dealing with adversity. As Dr Mogel puts it, “It is our job to prepare our children for the road, not to prepare the road for our children.”
Summary and Conclusions:
It is clear from a review of the research and experts’ perspectives that a few things stand out:
- First, we have created a rigid dichotomy in our society that views and reinforces the belief that success and failure are diametrical opposites, and that failure is the absence of success.
- Second, we have attributed moral and values weighting to success and failure—success is always good and failure is always bad. That has extended into viewing people in unrealistic terms—successful people are better, more desirable, etc, and those who have failed are the opposite.
- Fear of failure has become such a debilitating emotion for many people, that it prevents them from pursuing their dreams or ideas.
- Shame has also become a debilitating emotion for many people when they fail, believing that the failure means they are a failure.