There’s one crucial life lesson on which both CEOs and marriage counselors agree

Such sweet sorrow.
Such sweet sorrow.
Image: Reuters/Jason Lee
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How easy is it to look back at the bad times and say they were good for you? It’s easy: I’m about to spend 500 words doing it. But during those bad times, it’s really, really hard.

With that caveat out of the way, here’s the thesis: both failure and heartbreak can be good for you. And what is more: they are necessary. 

Last month at Davos, the exclusive conference in the Swiss mountains that essentially celebrates success in business, Quartz asked some of the world’s most powerful business leaders about what they looked for in employees. One response was more common than any other: they want to hire people who have failed.

Why? Because failing is a great way to learn. And since failing is inevitable, you’re better off working with people who know how to deal with it.

Arguably, the same goes for those times when we experience the most painful part of love—the failure of a relationship.

When you break up with someone “you find find the fault lines in your life crack and open,” says Andrew G. Marshall, a marital therapist and author of several books, including one on breakups. “You have two choices at that point,” he notes. “Most people say ‘I don’t like these cracks’,” and do things to distract themselves from the pain.

A better approach is “to sit with the pain,” he says. Eventually that means finding out what there is to learn from it, and moving on.

With the benefit of looking back from a long distance (it didn’t really work close-up), I can recognize the lessons from my own heartbreak. But I also have another close example. I’d known the man who would become my husband for years before anything romantic happened between us, and had been “ready” for a new relationship for a long while before our fairly cool dynamic changed, almost overnight, to something utterly different. Perhaps it was an accident of timing, or opportunity. But one major thing changed in the interim: he fell deeply in love with someone else. And he lost her.

Maybe the pain of the break-up changed him, however slightly, into someone with whom I had more common ground. Maybe requited love forces the openness of heart that makes an eventual heartbreak so wrenching; getting over that pain, but keeping that openness, makes us more able to love again.

There may be other reasons. But I believe there’s a strength and compassion to the heartbroken that those who’ve had it easy in love don’t develop. Although failure in love and work feel like moments of ruin, they might, weirdly, be constructive.

Getting things wrong offers “a window into normal human nature—into our imaginative minds, our boundless faculties, our extravagant souls,” writes Kathryn Shulz in her book Being Wrong, riffing on a quote from Benjamin Franklin that prefaces the text.

Getting things “right” is rewarding, and of course a laudable goal. But the most valuable lessons come from adversity. Shulz writes: ”however disorienting, difficult, or humbling our mistakes might be, it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, that can teach us who we are.”