Finding Success in Failure

March 27, 2023

“Better to be safe than to be sorry' is a remark of value only when these are the actual alternatives.”
Idries Shah

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Failure is not not an option.

What I mean is, it's an inevitable part of life and learning.

Many of us get upset when we fail at something. I've been there myself. I know what it's like to make a mess and then beat myself up over it. Maybe you've done that, too.

And then you and I become risk-averse, because mistakes mean pulling out the whip to beat ourselves up all over again. The trick we need to learn is how to use failure instead as a tool for personal growth.  

In the Workplace, Success is the Child of Failure

Korn Ferry points out an important paradox in the workplace:  successful general managers become successful because they are willing to fail. And they do fail: research studies say that they make more mistakes over the course of their careers than those they get promoted over. Other studies report that the best managers get things right only about 65% of the time. 

What happens the rest of the time? Some mistakes and missteps, to be sure. But also partial triumphs, iterative improvements, and most importantly, a whole lot of learning. When success comes, it's more mature. It's also more savvy, because it perceives pitfalls that might otherwise have escaped our notice. 

"Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently." - Henry Ford

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Two Views of Success

Over a decade ago, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck described two main types of mindsets in her book: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success: the fixed vs. growth mindsets. (Watch the 30-minute YouTube video version here.) Our mindset can determine our view of "success" and "failure." 

A fixed mindset assumes that things like intelligence and creativity are set in stone and can't be changed with continued learning. So, the goal of the fixed mindset is safety. We try to protect how these qualities show up to others and ourselves. That way, you and I can continue to believe that we are smart or skilled in what we do. 

To ensure “success” – an equally fixed standard to those with this mindset – you and I may strive only for goals well within our reach. Failure is a fearful thing because it would mean that our success in life would remain uncertain.

On the other hand, the growth mindset doesn't believe that intelligence and creativity are rigid qualities.

Rather, like the rings of a tree, they grow outward, depending on environment and life circumstances. Sometimes thick and sometimes thin, the rings of growth build on each other and strengthen the tree.

Sometimes the tree meets with some sort of challenge: fire, drought, or a boulder pressing in on its roots. This may change the trajectory of the tree, but it does not stop its growth. Even the mighty redwood, with its many arms stretched out above the earth, can't reach down and lift obstructions out the way. Its rings must simply change course. 

The goal of the growth mindset is, to put it most simply, more growth. “Success” means anything that accomplishes that goal, even - or especially - if it means making mistakes and seeming failures. You or I are not so worried about safety here. Safety may even pose a problem if it impedes learning. 

In her book, Dweck cites lots of research about these two opposing mindsets. If you're interested, read about it here:

These mindsets show up early in life

In one study, Dweck and colleagues gave four-year-old children an easy jigsaw puzzle to solve. After the preschoolers had successfully accomplished this task, the researchers gave them a choice: they could either re-work the easy puzzle, or they could try a more difficult one.

The children clearly responded in either one way or the other: some chose the safety of repeating their earlier success while others reached eagerly for a new challenge. They even explained their opposing mindsets to the researchers; the first expressing their belief that “smart kids never make mistakes,” and the second wondering why on earth they should do the same old puzzle over again when there was nothing new to be learned. 

Where do these mindsets come from? Were the preschoolers born thinking this way, or were they acting out the thoughts and behaviors they saw modelled in others? 

Probably both. Our minds are usually shaped by both nature and nurture.

These mindsets determine our view of "success" and "failure"

In another study, Dweck and colleagues administered a fairly easy IQ test to a group of adolescents.  Afterward, the researchers deliberately gave some of the students “ability”-based feedback such as, “Wow, you got _____ answers right. You must be really smart.” They gave “effort”-based feedback to the others: “Wow, you got _____ answers right. You must have worked really hard.”

As the researchers suspected would happen, those given “ability”-based feedback were more likely to think about their test results in fixed terms: “I was smart enough to do well on that test.” Likewise, those given “effort”-type feedback were more likely to think in growth terms: “I worked hard enough to do well.”

But this wasn't the end of the experiment. Dweck and colleagues then gave the students a much harder IQ test. None of the students did as well on the second round, but of course test results were not the point.

What the researchers wanted to know was, how would the fixed vs. growth students handle their failure?

As they suspected, the growth students took it in stride. Since the test results were not reflective of some immutable standard of skill or smarts, there was no reason to get upset over them. The growth students didn't interpret the test results as failure, but simply a gauge of further effort needed for next time.

As the researchers feared, the fixed students were dealt a more serious blow. Their test results seemed to burst their bubble of affirmed smarts and skills. The fixed students did not interpret the test results as an opportunity for further growth. Rather, the jig was up; the second test proved just how dumb they actually were.

The growth students had fun in both parts of the experiment and, importantly, worked hard to improve their performance as the test problems got harder. As you might have guessed, the fixed students stopped having fun when they started to “fail.” Their performance got worse as the test problems got harder.


“Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” - Denis Waitley

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Focus on the Success in Failure

Finding Success in Failure infographic

Still Fearful of Failure? Try These Steps:

  • Start small and easy. If no one's pushing you into a black diamond-level run of risk, start with the bunny hills. You will recover more quickly and easily if you wipe out. And if you don't, bunny hills can be great confidence boosters and learning opportunities. Look for the easiest challenges that will also give the greatest ROI. Work your way up to the tougher stuff, again keeping an eye on the rate of return.
  • Make risk-taking a habit. Try new things often and in multiple parts of your life. Anticipate the feelings that may wash over you, like fear or anxiety. Understand that such feelings often fade with greater exposure to risks that pay off. So, immerse yourself in risk until your fingers get pruney. The sooner you adapt, the sooner you will feel at ease. 
  • Celebrate the wins, but also celebrate the learning that comes with losses. Successful innovators don't avoid the risk of failure - rather, they mitgate the costs and capitalize the benefits by trying lots of quick, inexpensive iterations of their ideas. They celebrate the wins, but they recognize and celebrate the learning value of losses. 
  • Change your mindset. When you and I have a growth mindset, we don't fear failure. Failure is our friend. Failure is an instrument of future growth.

FREE Resource

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About the author 

Pamela Coburn-Litvak

Pam is a neuroscientist, author, speaker, and certified executive coach. Her research articles have been published in scientific journals including Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior.

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