It doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re trying to do anything even remotely noteworthy your relationship to failure is going to have at least the following two characteristics:
- It’s guaranteed to happen.
- It’s rarely pleasant.
Building a constructive stance towards failure is therefore a crucial step in increasing the likelihood that any given project will succeed in the long term.
When I was younger I tended to view failures as unambiguously Bad Things, with the result that they tended to elicit in me profound feelings of frustration and anger. My current working hypothesis for why this happened is that somewhere along the way I internalized a very strong version of what’s called entity theory. In a nutshell, people’s attitudes towards learning and growth can usually be characterized as process oriented or results oriented. A person that believes they are successful in mathematics because of immutable personality traits are entity theorists, and those that believe their success derives from hard work and changeable factors are incremental theorists.
The efforts of entity theorists are often brittle because they tend to interpret failures as evidence that they simply aren’t up to completing the task they’re facing. Having assumed that they’ve been successful up to this point because they just ‘have a knack for it’, they are poorly equipped to deal with problems beyond their abilities. Incremental theorists, in contrast, will become invigorated in the face of exceptional challenges and redouble their efforts at improvement.
I have sub-hypotheses for why I ended up this way, but since it’s a complicated discussion I’ll defer it to a future post. Luckily, during the course of getting a degree in psychology, I learned about entity theory and incremental theory, and made a concerted effort to change the way I frame failures.
Now I think of them as forming parts of a ladder. Above me hangs a goal I’ve set for myself, and if I’ve chosen something difficult it’ll be well out of my reach. So I grasp, and I fall short.
But the grasping process isn’t a Boolean function with binary outputs corresponding to success and failure. Having grasped I have grown, and thus is a rung added to the ladder. With each iteration in this cycle the goal gets progressively larger in my vision and my grasps come up less short than they did before.
This does not mean that failures should be accepted without reflection. They represent an opportunity to learn, yes, but sadly most people seem to learn little or nothing from their failures.
Nor does it mean that you shouldn’t attempt to minimize failures. By all means, try as hard as you can to avoid failing altogether. Just know that life rarely works that way, and that failing is something that can be done productively and intelligently.
You must climb to success, incrementally, on the ladder built from your failures.