There’s a simple formula for achieving long-term success. First, dash your dreams. Next, resume the slog. Try again. Finally, breathe and smile.
That may sound disappointing—who wouldn’t want to experience only victories? But loss is the salt that flavors our tears and positions us for the big wins.
That is the claim that Charles Duhigg makes in his New York Times Magazine story, “America’s Professional Elite: Wealthy, Successful, and Miserable,” and he’s got a point. If success is defined as leading a meaningful life with satisfying work and a sense of accomplishment, then struggling and overcoming obstacles is a sound way to build up the strength to persist, despite difficulties, and appreciate what you have.
The theory here is that getting pushed around by life forces you to deal, basically. Seeming “also-rans,” Duhigg argues, who aren’t stars in youth and who don’t land the plum jobs early on, have to cast about for direction and meaning. When they find their way, they’ve already trained in the mental habits of managing difficulty and reframing expectations.
The early achievers, by contrast, find later in life that not everything can go right. They take this hard because they have little practice managing struggle.
Duhigg’s contention is premised in part on his own experience. When he graduated from Harvard Business School (HBS), he was rejected from prestigious jobs and ended up in journalism. Circumstances pushed him to look beyond his original goals. He endured disappointment and went on to write about it in an esteemed publication, stating:
Some of my classmates thought I was making a huge mistake by ignoring all the doors HBS had opened for me in high finance and Silicon Valley. What they didn’t know was that those doors, in fact, had stayed shut—and that as a result, I was saved from the temptation of easy riches. I’ve been thankful ever since, grateful that my bad luck made it easier to choose a profession that I’ve loved.
Others like Duhigg at school, who were also “forced to scramble for work” and grapple with setbacks after graduation, wound up “richer, more powerful and more content than everyone else,” he writes.
If you’re a little suspicious of this argument, fair enough. Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer at this point. Even in his supposedly failed youth, he was doing alright. By most measures, attending an Ivy League graduate school is quite an achievement, after all.
So maybe Duhigg’s idea of success is too strict? Or perhaps he’s just one of those “good-enough life advocates” that Edith Zimmerman calls out in a recent article for The Cut: an over-achiever who humbly claims to be making do and doing okay, all while actually striving and making it big. Zimmerman contends that the internet is overrun with thoughtful essays on the benefits of resignation and the pleasures of the so-so life, all written by people who are actually fantastically successful and are burning with ambition.
However, success is relative. In the world of HBS graduates, Duhigg was a dud, apparently. The fact that he now sees the fortune in what once seemed like bad luck does prove his point—failures that don’t embitter us can teach us to savor success.
More good news: You don’t need to go out of your way to struggle and stumble, because it will happen naturally to most of us. And many a great has failed before they bloomed.
Novelist Thomas Pynchon published a book called Slow Learner in 1984. It’s a confession about his evolution as a writer, followed by five early stories written before the publication of his acclaimed 1963 novel, V. These examples prove that one need not be spectacular from the start to become a star. Pynchon writes:
You may already know what a blow to the ego it is to have to read anything you wrote 20 years ago, even canceled checks. My first reaction, rereading these stories, was oh my God, accompanied by physical symptoms we shouldn’t dwell upon…It is only fair to warn even the most kindly disposed of readers that there are some mighty tiresome passages here, juvenile and delinquent too. At the same time, my best hope is that pretentious, goofy, and ill-considered as they get now and then, these stories will still be of use with all their flaws intact.
Pynchon then details the many problems with each of his short works, painstakingly. He criticizes his use of language, ideas, references, and his process. Basically, he points out what a bomb each tale is and why he feels terrible reading it again. It’s refreshing evidence that slow and steady can win the race—you just have to keep trying.
Resilience is the recipe
Late bloomers learn resilience. Early disappointments force concessions, as Duhigg notes, and they reshape expectations. It is no doubt sad that the best way to gain strength is by falling and continually bouncing back, practicing, working around obstacles. But this flexibility is critical to long-term success.
“Resilience is a personal act of defiance,’” writes author Jesse Sostrin, who heads the executive leadership coaching program at the audit firm PwC. It “affects everything,” he argues, including problem-solving skills, physical, mental, and emotional well-being, and innovation. “Resilience is like a super-competency, influencing many other related skills and abilities that you need to deploy in order to work, manage, and lead well.”
Emotional elasticity is a learned skill, says psychologist Anna Rowley, who counsels executives at corporations like Microsoft on cultivating existential “mastery.” In her view, flexibility provides a personal foundation of strength and sense of safety in a chaotic world. The only way to get this quality is to fail and try again. Rowley argues that “happiness” is a distraction and that in fact, the best way to ensure that you feel satisfied with life is by being a person who is good at managing disappointments and setbacks.
Great late bloomers abound. The painter Anna Mary Robertson Moses, or Grandma Moses, took up a brush at age 75 and became a renowned artist before she died at 101. Harlan David Sanders, the colonel of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, started his company at age 65. The writer Harry Bernstein published his first short story at 24 and his debut novel when he was 90. Julia Child didn’t learn to cook until she was 40, yet she managed to dominate the culinary world. Alibaba founder Jack Ma was a bad student as a child, was famously rejected from Harvard University ten times, could not for the life of him land a job, and then went on to become a business titan. All of them took a winding path. None could have anticipated their success, arriving at their calling by trial and error.
Looking back, it’s clear that the late bloomers always had what it took—they just took their time.
We tell our life stories retrospectively, which means that what happens next will inform what you think of the present. Whatever is going on can’t be understood from where you stand. Those fortunate enough to stumble while they’re young often grasp that early, and thus have a better chance of writing satisfying subsequent chapters.