Failure destroys some people. Others rise from the ashes, only to come back stronger. A guide to surviving tough times.
By Bruce Grierson, published on May 1, 2009 last reviewed on December 18, 2014
In September of 2008, Philip Schultz, a humble and plainspoken fellow, crossed the hardwood floor and slid in behind a temporary lectern in the Center for Well-Being at The Ross School in East Hampton. It was commencement day for the eighth-grade class. Some students recognized Schultz, who was giving the address, as the father of eighth-grader Eli. He was a local poet.
Schultz told the students he hadn’t learned to read until he was 11. By then, he’d been held back a grade and was a permanent member of what the other kids called the “dummy class.” Teachers just didn’t know what to do with a kid like Phil Schultz—who, it turned out, was dyslexic. When a teacher asked him what he wanted to do with his life and Schultz said he wanted to be a writer, the teacher laughed. “I wasn’t insulted,” Schultz recalls. “I understood it was a funny thing to hear from someone who hated to read and couldn’t write a simple English sentence.”
Schultz’ punishment for being a dummy was exile to shameful outsiderdom within a class moving forward. And that’s exactly the kind of experience from which writers are made. Within “the loneliness of having so little expected of me, and the pain of being overlooked and forgotten,” as he put it to the assembly, was time for careful attention to his interior life. All a writer really needs are the self-knowledge to decipher his feelings, the judgment to recognize the original ones, and the courage to make them public. It’s a job open to anybody—even dyslexics. And so Schultz steamed ahead toward the one career for which others thought he was the most ill-suited—poetry.
Cut to 2007. A working poet now, Schultz realized that almost everything he wrote was about failure. Failure was his clay. He was writing about his dad—a drunkard who’d been a lousy parent and a worse provider—but he was also tapping the part of himself that felt like a failure. Schultz had aimed to be a novelist, but couldn’t pull it off. Alongside the very personal poems about his father, a long poem took shape about a character who walked other, more successful, people’s dogs.
The voltage that shot through the plainspoken language was unlike anything Schultz had produced. He called the collection, simply, Failure. On its cover: a bent nail in a board. Last year, it won the Pulitzer Prize.
These days, failure—what Schultz calls “the great American taboo”—has bubbled to the surface just about everywhere. Few people can escape the feeling they’re giving up ground. The global financial crisis has produced the sort of circumstances playwright Arthur Miller warned every generation must face—the sort that mints Willy Lomans.
The recession has brought a sense of siege, and within it, the collective emotional tone of the whole world seems to cycle. More than 4 million workers have been laid off since the recession began. On a single day in January, 70,000 people were laid off, and another 50,000 or 60,000 lost their jobs on each of the 10 days that followed. The rage spilled into the streets in 10 countries.
One day, we may look back on this period as “a time when the gods changed,” to paraphrase James Michener, a moment when a convergence of big scares rattled people’s beliefs about basic things: Am I safe? Who can I trust? Is there anything I can do? And how, given everything that has happened, should I live? It no longer seems possible to avoid failing simply by being conscientious and working hard—the formula our parents, and their parents, took to the bank.
There are failures and there are Failures, but the differences between bankruptcy and financial diminishment, divorce and marital strife, spiritual crisis and anomie are distinctions of degree, not kind. And they are connected. Woe in one sphere strains the seams of others. It’s not pretty. And that’s why failure is something you wouldn’t wish on your least agreeable relative.
Or would you?
A theory is gaining momentum that looks at failure differently. Failure, it says, is at worst a mixed blessing: It hurts, but can pay off in the form of learning and growth and wisdom. Some psychologists, like the University of Virginia’s Jonathan Haidt, go even further, arguing that adversity, setbacks, and even trauma may actually be necessary for people to be happy, successful, and fulfilled. “Post-traumatic growth,” it’s sometimes called. Its observers are building a solid foundation under the anecdotes about wildly successful people who credit their accomplishments to earlier failures that pushed them to the edge of the abyss.
Last fall, J.K. Rowling described to a Harvard grad class a perfect storm of failure—broken marriage, disapproval from her parents, poverty that bordered on homelessness—that sent her back to her first dream of writing because she had nothing left to lose. “Failure stripped away everything inessential,” she said. “It taught me things about myself I could have learned no other way.”
Apple founder Steve Jobs describes three apparent setbacks—dropping out of college, being fired from the company he founded, and being diagnosed with cancer—that ultimately proved portals to a better life. Each forced him to step back and gain perspective, to see the long view of his life. “I have failed over and over and over again, and that is why I succeed,” said Michael Jordan—as did Oprah, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Winston Churchill, and Thomas Edison, in slightly different words. Indeed, so oft-repeated is the trope that we lose sight of how strange it is.
We do know that learning is error-driven—probably as a result of the brain trying to be efficient. Failures grab our attention. So many things happen the way we expect them to that mistakes register disproportionately. We’re forced to integrate that new information. Researchers have found that the more wildly wrong our prediction was, the quicker we learn. The brain, you might say, feeds on failure. We are acutely sensitive to negative feedback, and this “negativity bias” drives learning, at least from teenagehood on up.
Paul MacCready, Jr., the famed aeronautical engineer who died in 2007, understood the practical value of failure, and very consciously built his success on it. Vying for the Kremer Prize for the world’s first human-powered airplane, he designed his airplane to crash well—to protect the pilot and be quickly repairable, so he could crash, and learn, again. MacCready not only expected to fail, he actually depended on failure as necessary grist for the mill. (It worked: He won the prize.) For MacCready, failure had became an implicit part of the scientific method. Which of course it is. The term “trial and success” isn’t much heard, because it doesn’t make sense.
“An occasional failure in life is extremely important information,” Haidt says. “When you look at stories of great leaders, they almost all had major setbacks. That was the concern I had with Obama. I now think he’ll make a great president—but the fact that he really hasn’t had any major failures in his life means that he may not be as tempered, as challenged, as hardened.”
If you don’t get the kind of information failure provides, you’ll end up with unrealistic expectations for yourself, explains Haidt. You could wind up in a position where failure, which has gathered under cover of darkness, reveals itself all at once.
We should hope, then, for exposure to failure, early and often. The sociologist Glen Elder proposed that there is a sensitive period for growth—late teens through early 30s—during which failures are most beneficial. Such a pattern seems to promote the trait sometimes called equanimity. We learn that trauma is survivable, so we don’t plunge too deeply following setbacks. Nor, conversely, do we soar too high on our successes. Some businesses in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street make a point of hiring ex-pro athletes to their staffs. It’s not just that their high profile draws business. It’s because athletes are master compartmentalizers. “We needed people who could perform and not get emotionally attached to losses,” a Chicago oil trader told the New York Times, explaining why the firm likes jocks on the trading floor, particularly in ugly economic times like these. Buddhists call such equanimity upekkhaa. The image is of a rider easy in the saddle. Nothing can so surprise her—either for good or ill—that she’ll be knocked off.
One way to help keep life’s slings and arrows from knocking you off course is to ensure your life is multidimensional, says Stephen Berglas, a California psychologist and personal coach. That way, a setback in any one area won’t mean in your mind that you’re a failure categorically. Call it spreading your risk across your emotional portfolio—or adding another leg to the furniture for balance, says Berglas.
Failure—especially public failure—stirs some of the most potent social emotions we have: humiliation, guilt, shame. Guilt—which occurs when you chalk up a failure to something you did—can be beneficial. Shame, on the other hand—which is present when you attribute failure to something you are—casts a generalized depressive pall on you that’s harder to face, let alone fix, notes Richard Robins, director of the Personality, Self and Emotion Laboratory at the University of California at Davis.
That may explain why, though writer Sascha Rothchild’s rejection from Yale felt shameful and made her depressed, getting divorced after just a year of marriage didn’t seem as personal. “It seemed that the two of us tried this thing and it didn’t work out,” says Rothchild. “It was our fault. We weren’t working out together—that doesn’t mean either of us is a bad person.” The guilt left behind in the tailing pond of a failed marriage was actually productive. It made her deconstruct in minute detail what might have been done differently. (The result was a forthcoming memoir sardonically titled How to Get Divorced By 30.)
Failure has implications for our development as whole people, fulfilled and purposeful. It can initiate a search for meaning, a shift from pursuing the kinds of happiness that flare briefly to the kinds of happiness that endure. Suppose you’ve just gone broke. A wicked hit registers in the “work and success” dimension of your life. But the psychic immune system has a strategy for such a loss. There are four basic dimensions of our lives, says Robert Emmons, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis. There is achievement, community, spirituality, and legacy. When one dimension fails us—we lose “achievement,” say, when we’re laid off—the remaining three get stronger.
Achievement is a big one in America—disproportionately valued, and often conflated with material success. But other dimensions actually have a potentially higher payoff. We easily habituate to material things, and they quickly stop making us happy. But these other less tangible values, a number of researchers have found, don’t lose their happiness-making punch—at least not as much.
And so the once-autonomous striver, bulletproof and bowling alone, is forced to throw that old life over the side and start making other connections. A new unifying principle coalesces around some “higher purpose,” and damned if the new life doesn’t feel like an upgrade. Thus does failure lead, roundabout, to happiness. “London and Chicago seized the opportunities provided by their great fires to remake themselves into grander and more coherent cities,” Haidt writes in The Happiness Hypothesis. “People sometimes seize such opportunities, too, rebuilding beautifully those parts of their lives and life stories that they could never have torn down voluntarily.”
Everyone gets laid low by failure sometimes, however briefly. The real difference between people who pull themselves out somehow versus the people who do not, says Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a psychologist at Yale, is that some slip into “rumination”—a spiral of morbid self-involvement that’s extremely difficult to shake. But what separates the ruminators from the resilients? Why is it that the same set of circumstances that drives one person deeper into the mud makes another stronger? Is there just a kind of native temperament, a Donald Trump-ish optimism some psychologists have described as “enthusiasm and persistence in the face of setbacks”—something that helps some people find the kernel of good inside the bad and profit from it—that’s either in play or isn’t? How can we learn, as Samuel Beckett put it, to “fail better”?
“Failing better” boils down to three things. It’s a matter of controlling our emotions, adjusting our thinking, and recalibrating our beliefs about ourselves and what we can do in the world.
“Chess is a game of failure,” says Bruce Pandolfini, an American chess master known for his work teaching young chess players. (Sir Ben Kingsley played him in Searching for Bobby Fischer.) “At the beginning, you lose—a lot. The kids who are going to succeed are the ones who learn to stand it. A lot of young players find losing so devastating they never adapt, never learn to metabolize that failure and to not take it personally. But good players lose and then put the game behind them emotionally.”
Pandolfini teaches his students this calming sense of perspective. The present moment is laid out against the past. What you see is compared to your memories of what you’ve seen—and mastered—before. What you have in the end is a kind of coherent story. He calls it chess instruction, but really, it works with anything. In fact, it’s not so different from the way writing down your feelings in a journal helps you process failure and move on, a phenomenon demonstrated by James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas.
Teachers, studies reveal, can foster resiliency among students, creating students who don’t flinch from failure but actually welcome it as a learning opportunity. People have one of two belief systems about how intelligence works, says Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford. We think intelligence is either “fixed” or “malleable.” In other words, we’re pretty much as smart and good and competent as we’re going to get, or else we’re a work in progress, and the way forward is up.
People who believe intelligence is fixed are less resilient. If you don’t believe you can learn anything from your mistakes, you won’t welcome failure with open arms.
But students who are taught that the brain is plastic and that they can become smarter and more competent—that the brain grows, like a muscle, when you work it hard—show a spike in grades and enjoy school more. Because they’re less afraid to fail, they succeed more.
How much failure is too much? Bubble-wrapping kids to shield them from failing does them no favors. Without that trial-and-error learning from gradual exposure to risk, kids become vulnerable to anxiety disorders, says Michael Liebowitz, a psychiatrist at Columbia University. But at the other extreme, exposure to repeated and relentless failure can crush the spirit of even a resilient kid. A parent’s job, then, is to create a kind of sweet spot of exposure to failure.
“There’s a bleeding edge of where we have to push ourselves—it can’t be too far in front of us,” says Michael Ungar, head of the International Resilience Project at Dalhousie University. “You can’t just say to a kid, go learn to swim on your own. But you can take them through the process gradually. Let them see what buoyancy feels like, let them have little moments of mild distress where everything is then immediately okay—manageable risk. This is how we learn to solve problems, and receive an inoculation against major stressors. But there is a little bit of a cult of self-esteem that short-changes it all.”
Failure can’t help us if we’re oblivious to it. And yet. There’s something deeply sympathetic, and not a little familiar, in repeat failure. So often are our rehabilitations short-lived. Despite our best intentions, our mightiest resolve, we find ourselves endlessly repeating earlier failures.
But the great payoff in failing is it gives us another chance, as Alex Trebek encourages his Jeopardy contestants who risk everything and crash down to zero to “start building.” To begin again from scratch is itself part of the American script.
In this sense, failing well amounts to taking a weird kind of pride not just in the potential positive consequences of failure but in the failure itself—the awful, agreeable humanity of it. Failure drives us out of our caves and into the world of Other People, that plane where happiness is less perishable.
After Failure was published, Philip Schultz couldn’t help notice the strong reactions other people had to it—the “triggering mechanism” of the word itself, as if it was a private shame or fear everyone had, and were grateful for having the entree to talk about.
“It’s interesting how many people are coming up to me and talking about their relationship with failure,” he says. “Everyone thinks they’re a failure. The only people who don’t are the ones who really are.” —Bruce Grierson
NINE ways to fail better
Some people learn from failure and bounce back stronger. For others, failure destroys them. Be one of the ones who rise from the ashes.
Most people who bounce back from setbacks have a sense of humor. They know when they’re taking things—and themselves—too seriously. We’re often so paralyzed by fear of failure that we “self-handicap,” sabotaging ourselves by putting an impediment in the way, says personal coach Steven Berglas. Because, hey, if something prevented you from trying your best, you can’t be said to have failed, right?
“I’ll die if I don’t win the Olympics,” Berglas sometimes hears from his clients. “Really?” he replies. “On the court? Or will you die of shame?” OK, they acknowledge, they didn’t really mean die. But now there’s a fissure in their anxiety through which the ridiculousness can seep in. It’s hard to find the funny in the fine grain. Humor is about stepping back for fresh perspective. We assume that’s something we’re born with, but we can become better at seeing the lighter side by sheer exposure to that way of thinking. And it does take the edge off of failure. After all, an embarrassment today makes for an entertaining story tomorrow.
Join the club
Misery loves company. Just look at the growth of Web-based support groups like “15,000,000 Recession-Touched People” (on Facebook) and Global Depression Support Group (on meetup.com).
There’s real value in commiseration. When Montrealer Sylvain Henry started a Facebook support group called “Recession Survivors” after being laid off from a software company, the group became a lightning rod for pain and blame. “You’ve gotta blame someone, right?” Henry says. “Whose fault is this?” People vented about the lost house, the failed marriage. It was cathartic.
Then something happened. “People vented themselves out,” Henry says. “After that came another impulse: Let’s do something about this.” The members began posting productive hints, little money-saving tips about budget-friendly cookie recipes or how to throw a good garage sale. The site transformed into a clearinghouse of resourceful coping strategies for hard times. Call it Failing Better: the Open-Source Edition.
Feel guilt, not shame
The difference between guilt and shame is the reason we assign as to why failure occurs, notes Richard Robins, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis. Guilt says it’s “something I did.” But shame means feeling failure occurred because of “something I am”—in which case, you expect failure and don’t act to avoid it.
But the cycle of learned helplessness can be broken. Instead of thinking “I’m a failure,” think “I’m a good person who made a mistake I can learn from.” If your story about failure is, “It’s all my fault,” you might need to practice looking outward and ask yourself, “What other things—things that aren’t about me—might have caused this negative event?”
On the other hand, if your story is, “It’s never about me,” you may need to seek out some aspects of the problem you can do something about. Because let’s face it, you do mess up—everyone does. In which case you need to own the failure, see what you can learn from it, and move on.
Of the seven learnable skills of resilience—emotion awareness, impulse control, multiperspective thinking, empathy, the belief that you can solve your own problems, taking appropriate risks, and optimism—the most important is optimism, says Karen Reivich, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” said Hamlet, and indeed, paying attention to the positive infuses the world with hope—and creates a climate in which failure loses its sting.
The key to resilience is thinking more flexibly and learning to increase your array of options. The psychologist Martin Seligman advocates disputation, in which you think of your mind as a courtroom where negative thoughts are instantly put on trial.
You can rebut these thoughts, and you should. Now you’re acting as your own defense counsel, throwing at the court every bit of evidence you can think of to prove the belief is flawed. The bad thought is no longer a lock, and it dies amid the doubt.
Ask not what the world can do for you…
Getting fired and left without savings or health-care coverage is rough, but for some, it carries an unexpected message: “Now you are free.” Free to do something more meaningful with your life—like volunteering overseas. If you don’t have to earn money right away, ask yourself: How can you be of service to others?
The sales manager of a Portland, Oregon radio station, Margaret Evans was let go unexpectedly in late September. As she researched new jobs and grad schools, it occurred to her that getting laid off was a kind of gift. She’d always intended to do service work. “This was my chance to make it happen,” she says.
The tumblers aligned, and by December she’d signed on as a volunteer at an orphanage in Belize, through a Florida-based charity called Dream Center International. Travel, live cheaply, and do good for people who genuinely need it: not a bad recipe. “This turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me,” she says.
Scale down your expectations for yourself
When we succeed, we tend to just ratchet up our expectations for ourselves and not get a lot of pleasure out of it. But when we fail, it’s much harder to ratchet down our expectations for ourselves. “That might be what failing well is,” says psychologist Jonathan Haidt. “A willingness to lower our sights when that’s realistically required.”
Gilbert Brim begins his book Ambition with the story of his father in rural Connecticut: or rather, his father’s windowbox. As a young man his father took pride in maintaining the forest on the whole property, but eventually that task became impossible. So as he grew older and weaker, he reduced the range and scope, until he was content just to tend the flowers in his windowbox, albeit to the same standards of excellence. If failure is about failing to meet goals you set for yourself, then one way to avoid failing is to revise those now-outdated goals. That way, instead of failing on a stage you once mastered, you’re still succeeding on a more modest stage.
Harness the Bridget Jones Effect
Keeping a journal can help you cope with failure. Jamie Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas, studied middle-aged engineers who’d lost their jobs. Those who wrestled with their feelings about the trauma through journaling were far more likely to find reemployment. It wasn’t simply the tension-relieving “catharsis” of getting their feelings out. Nor was it that they were more motivated to get out there and pound the pavement—they didn’t receive more phone calls, make more contacts, or send out more letters.
Rather, writing helps create meaning—finding coherence and building a personal story that lassos all the question marks hanging in the air and making sense of them. Writing about their feelings forced them to come to terms with getting laid off. It also boosted their social skills—making them more likeable, less vindictive, and better able to get on with things. They were less wrapped up in their past. They could listen better and were more optimistic and less hostile.
Don’t blame yourself
Self-blame is corrosive. Research on kids raised amid domestic violence, abuse, or maternal depression shows that self-blame can trigger or worsen depression. Attribution errors—blaming yourself for the bad things that happen to you—are probably the biggest reason people metabolize failure badly. Attribution has a potent effect on depression—the more you blame yourself for problems, the more depressed you grow. And it’s a vicious circle—the more depressed you are, the more you blame yourself. By contrast, children who understand that such negative life circumstances are outside their control are not as vulnerable, notes Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck.
Failure is an opportunity to change course. Seize it.