Dear Dr. Donna – Advice on Coping with Failure

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

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Dear Dr. Donna,

I’m at a low point in my life. I’m in a dead-end job and I just broke up with a long-term boyfriend. I have so many big plans in my head for the future, but I’m paralyzed by my fear and anxiety. I’m at a crossroad in my life and I want to move on to new things. I want to move to a new city, go back to school and get a new job with new friends. But I feel like all eyes are on me, watching my next move, just waiting for me to fail, so they can judge me. I want to close this chapter of my life and move on, but I’m afraid I won’t be any more successful at my “new life” than I have been so far.

How do I get out of this rut?

- So Afraid to Fail

Dr. Donna Says . . .

Dear Afraid,

Success. We all want it. But just what is it? How do you get it? How do you really know when you’ve reached it?

Consider this from “successful” Basketball legend Michael Jordon . . .

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. - Michael Jordan

. . . or these facts about one of the most “successful” Baseball players of all time . . .

1923 was quite a year for Baseball legend Babe Ruth. He broke multiple Major League Baseball records. Most notably for the most home runs and for the highest batting average in a season. However, he also struck out more than any other player. In fact, he accumulated a whopping 1,330 career strikeouts - a record he held for 29 years until it was broken by none other than the highly successful Mickey Mantle. Ruth’s attitude about these 1,330 failures? “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run,” he insisted (Creamer, 1992).

Most of us certainly want to hit the home runs, but without the strikeouts. Turns out, it doesn’t work that way.

Turns out, it’s all about perception. Some of the greatest success stories, viewed from another angle, are sagas of failure. It’s just that they didn’t believe that. They wouldn’t believe that. And they didn’t stop there. They moved on to succeed.

Consider the profiles of these two entrepreneurs:

1. College dropout. Fired from a high-level executive position. Unsuccessful businessman, launching several expensive product failures.

2. Revolutionized six industries (personal computers, animated movies, phones, music, tablet computing, and digital publishing). Founded one of the most successful companies in the world. (Blumenthal, 2012).

As you may have guessed, these descriptions both refer to the same person - the iconic Steve Jobs. He changed the world, but he didn’t always have the Midas touch. He failed, miserably. And succeeded, profoundly.

Generally, we consider failure a bad thing - success’s ugly stepsister. We try to avoid it. We hide ours in shame. We pretend it never happened. Or, worse yet, we quit trying because of it.

The art world is rife with examples -Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Georges-Pierre Seurat, Johannes Vermeer - of famous artists who were unrecognized, or outright rejected in their time, only later to be lauded as brilliantly creative and talented. Literature too has its share of later recognized geniuses who were misfits to their contemporaries, including Henry David Thoreau, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson. Even scientists who contributed some of the greatest discoveries - Gregor Mendel, Nicholas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei - were rejected by their peers and often publicly humiliated. Just imagine if these individuals had given up at the first sign of failure. The world, most certainly, would be a lesser place.

Yet, it certainly seems a bit elusive, this success thing. After all, if Poe and Van Gogh and Galileo couldn’t pull it off with their peers, do we stand a chance?

It begs the question, is success really success if you are not recognized for it?

We’ve all heard the old adage, If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Like many clichés, there is sage advice buried in that maxim.

Psychologists have long been interested in individual differences and particularly why one person succeeds, while another with similar resources and opportunities, does not. In 1907, William James, one of the founding fathers of psychology, wrote, “Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental resources . . . men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use” (James, 1968).

In modern psychological studies the concept of grit has been identified as setting apart the achievers from the non-achievers, as part of a growing movement to examine the role of non-cognitive skills (i.e., things other than standard measures of intelligence) in various aspects of success. While once IQ was considered the holy grail of measurements that determined an individual’s fate, now we are not so confident about that singular, and controversial metric.

In general, these researchers define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. They recognize that “Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course” (Duckworth et al., 2007, pp. 1087-1088).

Of course psychologists want to measure this thing they call grit and thus have developed The Grit Scale.

How gritty are you? Take this online test from the University of Pennsylvania and find out.

Collectively, these studies have concluded that the achievement of difficult goals entails not only talent but also the diligent, sustained and focused application of abilities over time. We all have that kind of perseverance when we are very young. If we didn’t only some of us would ever learn to walk. Slowly, that kind of initiative, that natural pick-yourself-up, dust-yourself-off and start-all-over-again momentum becomes tempered by the judgments of others and morphs into a fear of failure, which unchecked, can become a fear of trying anything at all. Psychologists even have a diagnostic label for the abnormal, unwarranted, and persistent fear of failure - Atychiphobia.

One criticism of the studies is that the researchers are concerned exclusively with objective accomplishments, such as vocational achievements, that are judged to have worth in the eyes of others and subject to collective goals and measurements. But much of what makes our lives meaningful, much of what we spend our time pursuing when we can choose what to do with our hours, is subjective and esoteric. What is deemed success in these realms - friendship, charity, entertainment, just to name a few - is highly personal and idiosyncratic.

This leads us to ask ourselves, is it internal or external recognition that comprises true success?

Famed guru of positive psychology, ‎Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, considered the concept of flow as the optimal experience. He defined flow as "the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity" (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008).

The philosophical question then becomes, is happiness enough of a measure of success, or do we need the external accoutrements of fame and fortune?

Either way you slice it, as an intensely personal or highly public measure, success is neither guaranteed, nor permanent. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some psychologists argue that not only do some individuals succeed despite obstacles and failures, but rather, because of them. In other words, the notion that failure is the opposite of success, as we are taught, is just plain wrong. Instead, what has been labeled, in all its judgmental glory, as failure, can be considered a necessary steppingstone to greater success.

Just ask Michael Jordan.

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Photo by M. on Unsplash

Someone Once Said . . .

"Everything you want is on the other side of fear."  - Jack Canfield

“Success is most often achieved by those who don't know that failure is inevitable.” - Coco Chanel

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” - Robert F. Kennedy

Recommended Reading

For more info on coping with failure take a look at the following titles:

Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better: Wise Advice for Leaning into the Unknown by Pema Chödrön and Seth Godin

Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes Into Stepping Stones for Success by John C. Maxwell 

The Power of Failure: 27 Ways to Turn Life's Setbacks Into Success by Charles C. Manz 

Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts by Guy Winch Ph.D.

References

Blumenthal, K. (2012). Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different: A Biography. Square Fish.

Creamer, R. (1992). Babe: The Legend Comes to Life. Simon & Schuster.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial Modern Classics.

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D. & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 92(6):1087.

James, W. (1968). The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition. Modern Library.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY
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