We have been lying to ourselves about failure

There’s a neat cultural narrative that failure is a stepping-stone to success.

You see it in Silicon Valley’s “fail fast” mantra, which implies failure is a necessary learning experience for those who then find success, and among prominent professors who publish CVs of their failures (pdf) on the way to the top. Though this may be more realistic than pretending impressive people never fail, it’s still overly simplistic.

Failure is not just a pathway to success that, once overcome, will lead to triumph. The two are, in fact, far more intermingled and far less absolute than we like to believe.

Though we highlight examples of people who fail before achieving great things, there are also plenty of people who experience the opposite. Take the case of biochemist Douglas Prasher, whose work was crucial to a Nobel prize-winning discovery. But not only did Prasher narrowly miss out on the Nobel, he was working as a van driver (paywall) when the prize recipients were announced. Despite his brilliant research, Prasher was unable to get a tenured academic job and had to leave science.

In the end, the two biologists awarded the Nobel for their work paid for Prasher to attend the Nobel banquet alongside them.

Then there’s Rob Kuznia, a former reporter who had already switched to PR by the time he found out he’d won a Pulitzer, because he simply couldn’t earn enough as a journalist. And Kathleen Sullivan, the former dean of Stanford Law School who, when she left the position to join a Los Angeles firm, failed the California bar exam (paywall).

Kyla Haimovitz, psychology professor at Stanford University who’s researched how discussion of failure can affect children’s motivation to learn, notes that it’s educationally valuable not to view “failure” and “success” as distinct states of being.

“Thinking about it as a continuum focuses people on the process of learning,” she says. “So when you make an error or succeed at something, it’s just one instance. It doesn’t say something about underlying stable traits: You can do it or you can’t do it, you’re good at math or bad at math, you’re a success or a failure. It’s just saying this is one step in the learning process.”

This nuanced perspective is also valuable for adults. Costica Bradatan, a philosophy professor at Texas Tech University who’s working on a book about failure, says he finds the portrayal of failing as a step or even key to success to be “suspect.” This narrative, he says, conceals a fear of failure and refusal to deal with it.

“We have to admit, failure can be an ugly, brutal, profoundly unsettling thing,” he tells Quartz. “Facing it requires a certain amount of courage and honesty with oneself. When we experience failure, it makes us question our sense of who we are, our place in the world, everything. Before our failure leads us somewhere else, we have to face it in its own terms, in all its ugliness and devastation, and that’s a serious business.”

Failure doesn’t necessarily lead to success, and sometimes success can even lead to failure. This is far less optimistic than the rosy fail-to-succeed narrative, but it’s also more honest, and shows how false it is to consider anyone a clear-cut “success” or “failure.”

Though painful, failures inevitably shape us. To ignore this is to deny part of our identity.

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