During the last decades the idea of ”success” has obsessed us, becoming one of the most characteristic signs of the dominant social narrative. All of us, as good sons of this society, pursue the goal of “succeeding in life”. The problem is that this success is presented under very limited coordinates, which point to the accumulation of wealth, power and/or influence.
Obviously, in this context “failure” is widely hated, is something that we must avoid at all costs because it means that we do not fit into social standards, that we are not enough intelligent or capable to achieve the goal that everyone is pursuing. That’s why, when we fail, we try to hide it, we deny the facts or pretend that nothing has happened. The obsession with success and the terror of failure make us insecure and vulnerable.
The experiment that showed the damage caused by the exaltation of “success”
In the late 1990s, two psychologists from Columbia University conducted an experiment that revealed the damage caused by pressure to succeed. The researchers asked a group of children to complete a series of exercises to evaluate their intelligence. But they gave them a fake feedback that had nothing to do with their actual performance.
Some were told that they did well, others were praised as “little geniuses” and to the rest nothing else was said.
Thereafter, the psychologists explained to the children that they could choose between very easy tasks, which they would probably solve well but from which they would learn a little, or more difficult tasks in which they could make mistakes but also learn new things.
65% of the children who had been praised and labeled as “geniuses” opted for the easy task while in the other groups the percentage decreased by almost a half.
Those children were only between 10 and 12 years old, which means that at that age we have already introjected the concepts of success and failure, so that they begin to influence our decisions, limiting our chances of learning and grow.
In fact, one of the main problems of the fear of failure is that it limits success. The more we are obsessed with success, the more we fear failure, which will make us take more cautious decisions that in many cases can take us far from our goal. It is a snake biting its own tail.
You do not know how strong you are until being strong is your only chance
Resilience is a capacity that grows in adversity. For example, those who have overcome a serious illness often acknowledge that the experience has strengthened them, allowing them to discover an inner strength they did not suspect.
When adversity knocks on our door, they force us to activate our psychological resources, thus revealing potentialities that we did not suspect. When we finally get out of this situation, something will be changed inside of us: now we know we are able to face difficulties and failures without collapsing.
So when we get into trouble again, we can count on our ability to move forward. We can fully trust ourselves because we know exactly how far we can go and what we can endure.
The singer and composer Neil Young spoke about the idea of failure as a catalyst for personal trust at the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival when they asked him what was the road to success:
“The other thing you need to be willing to do is to be able to embrace, accept and welcome failure in your life, with open arms and with a broad vision, make sure you always “welcome” failure. Saying always: “failure, happy to have you next, come on”. Because in this way you will not have any fear. And if you are not afraid, believe and listen to yourself, you are the numbers one. Everything else is behind you. It’s your life, your movie … Fuck everything else.”
The failures to which Young refers are those related to our life experiences, those failures that contain a lesson, both on ourselves and on our circumstances, are failures that transform us because they allow us to glimpse an inner strength that we did not know.
Failing allows us to understand that it is possible to start over again and move forward. It makes us stronger and gives us power, allowing us to know who we really are, what we are capable of and where we can get in life.
Mueller, C. M. & Dweck, C. S. (1998) Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 75(1): 33-52.
Dweck, C. S. (1999) Caution – Praise can be dangerous. American Educator; 23: 4–9.