How Failure Can Lead to Success and Growth

How Failure Can Lead to Success and Growth

What are failures and successes?

Failure is the condition of not getting the desired outcome and is normally the opposite of success, though failure is usually different for everyone based on individual beliefs. Success is the accomplishment of reaching a goal, purpose or intended outcome. Your definition of success can vary based on beliefs as well. Common ideas of success can include wealth, prosperity, happiness, wellness and contentment.

While failure and success are natural parts of your personal and professional life, acknowledging the feelings associated with each is an important step in gaining emotional intelligence and the ability to recognize the impact success and failure can have. As you mature in life and your career, it's likely your personal definitions of success and failure change. Depending on your goals and career aspirations, you might experience both failures and successes. Here's a deeper look at each:

Examples of failures

Here are some common examples of failures:

  • Receiving poor or failing test grades

  • Not getting accepted into a degree or certification program

  • Interviewing for a position but not securing a job offer

  • Getting a bad performance review

  • Missing a deadline

  • Not making a team

  • Losing a client, sale, project or money

  • Making a mistake that affects others

  • Being terminated from a job

  • Staying in an unsatisfactory role

  • Not meeting the expectations of others

Related: 5 Productive Ways To Cope With Failure

Examples of successes

Here are some common examples of success:

  • Getting a degree from a prestigious college or university

  • Earning a significant salary or attaining financial security

  • Holding a high-level position or important job title

  • Being selected for a promotion

  • Having the financial means to give back to others and your community

  • Maintaining your integrity in challenging situations

  • Gaining wisdom and learning from mistakes

  • Obtaining fame or recognition

  • Finding a meaningful career

  • Sustaining mental health and wellness

  • Being respected by leaders, peers and subordinates

  • Taking risks that lead to more opportunities

Read more: 15 Ways To Define Success in Your Career


Reasons why failure can lead to success

Good people are good because they’ve come to wisdom through failure. We get very little wisdom from success, you know. – William Saroyan

1. It gives you an opportunity to grow as person

By being pushed outside your comfort zone, you are forced to grow and become more resilient.

2. It gives you an opportunity to improve your business or product

Edison certainly did not give up on his dream to create the lightbulb. He failed a 1000 times before he invented a product we still use today.

There were other inventors who beat him to the prize of inventing a lightbulb, but they are all gone and forgotten, as their product was just not as good as Edison’s.

Leaders understand that failure is a learning opportunity that will give them an edge over their competitors.

3. You learn how to handle stressful events

One of the most remarkable things about living through stressful life events is realising how you can get through anything.

I have had some stressful times at work over the past few years.

But you know what, I got through them. And I recovered.

So now, whenever life gets too tough, I remind myself of the past, how I managed to get through the bad times, how I managed to overcome my failures, and that I will get through it again.

4. You become braver

Fear of failure often holds us back from trying to achieve our dreams, or setting high goals.

Realising that failure is just another opportunity for growth means you are less afraid to fail.

When you have less fear, you are more willing to try new things, or accept opportunities that are offered to you.

More opportunities and chances lead to more success and enjoyment of life.

5. You take more risks

Overcoming our failures teach us that you it’s OK to take more risks as you’ve proven to yourself you can handle it when things go wrong.

6. Your confidence grows

Every time you fail at something, you have a choice to give up or to continue.

When you choose to go on, to keep walking the path to your dreams and goals, every time you overcome another hurdle or obstacle, you learn that you really can achieve your goals.

You start to believe in yourself more and more and you become more confident in what you can achieve.

7. You become more resilient and stronger

And every time you refuse to give up you realise that you are capable of far more than you ever imagined.

8. You become more patient

Success is very often a long lonely road.

Being able to look back on the past and seeing all the failures you have overcome already means you are less likely to give up just because it’s taking longer than you would have wished.

9. You accomplish more

When you become more confident, patient and resilient, you set higher and higher goals, and you are less likely to give up.

10. You enjoy life more

I honestly think and believe that new experiences, achievements and pushing the boundaries of your own comfort are what make life more enjoyable.

What Makes You Successful: Luck or Learning?

With data in hand, the team began thinking about success and failure at the simplest level. Success, they theorized, must be the result of one of two basic phenomena: luck or learning. People who become successful in a given area are either improving steadily over time, or they are the beneficiaries of chance. So the researchers tested both theories.

If wins are primarily the result of chance, the team figured, all attempts are equally likely to succeed or fail—just like a coin toss, where what happened before doesn’t much influence what happens next. That means the typical person’s hundredth attempt won’t be any more successful than their first, since individuals are not systematically improving.

So the researchers looked at the first attempt and the penultimate attempt (the one right before a win) for each aspiring scientist, entrepreneur, and terrorist in their dataset. To measure improvement (or lack thereof) over time, the researchers looked at changes in how the scientists’ grant applications were rated, the amount of venture funding the startups received, and the number of individuals wounded in terrorists’ attacks.

Analysis revealed that the chance theory doesn’t hold up. In all three datasets, an individual’s second-to-last attempt did tend have a higher probability of success than their very first effort.

Yet people weren’t learning in the way the researchers had expected. The classic idea of the learning curve says that the more you do something, the higher your proficiency gets. So if everyone in the dataset was reliably learning from their prior failures, their odds of success should increase dramatically with each new attempt, leading to short-lived failure streaks before success.

But the data revealed much longer streaks than the researchers anticipated.

“Although your performance improves over time, you still fail more than we would expect you to,” Wang explains. “That suggests that you are stuck somewhere—that you are trying but not making progress.”

In other words, neither of the two theories could account for the dynamics underlying repeated failures. So the researchers decided to build a model that accounted for that.

Failing Fast

Silicon Valley coined the phrase “failing fast”.

It’s a term in the Agile method of software development where you deliberately seek out failure so you can find the weaknesses in your software in order to fix it faster, and thereby build a better product quicker.

It works the same for business practices.

By deliberately seeking out failure, you get to a profitable business model faster as you learn what does and doesn’t work, or put another way, you learn what the customer wants or doesn’t want.

You don’t have to spend many years building a company or a product that no-one is interested in, because you fail deliberately, then use the lessons from your mistakes to be more successful.

Look for the small wins

Chances are, not all was lost in a project that went awry or didn’t pan out the way you expected. Along with pinpointing room for improvement with a failure resume or analyzing a failed project with a team, there’s something else you can do to help you make sense of what happened: hone in on what worked.

This is where a career journal may come in handy. For every three items that did not go according to plan, challenge yourself to think about three things that did go well and why, and then track it all in your journal.

For example, maybe you took on your first community-organizing project but the outcome did not match the goals. You could acknowledge that you did something completely new, made important connections, and now have the experience you need to lead a more successful effort next time.

While it’s hard to search for the silver lining in a disappointing professional situation, honing this skill will help you cope with future upsets, and we’re all bound to stumble from time to time!

4. Courage

Failure doesn’t mean that your life is over and you should throw all your dreams in the trash. At least you had the courage to try. People often spend there life wondering what would have happened if they did try. But they’ll never know because they didn’t have the courage to try, they let the fear of failure get in the way of their success. So don’t be so wrapped up in the fear of failure – at least you gave it a shot which is more than a lot of people could say. The person who gives it a shot knowing the great possibility of failure, is the person with the most courage.

Making Dangerous Attribution Errors

In racing, many interdependent factors affect outcomes. Without a detailed analysis, it was impossible to know whether the Ducati team’s performance in 2003 was due to its bike design, its strategy for particular races, its riders’ talents and decisions, bad choices by other teams, luck, random events like the weather or crashes, or some complex combination of all those things. And without such knowledge (and given Ducati’s long history of winning in other venues), it was too easy to attribute the team’s excellent performance to the quality of its decisions, actions, and capabilities.

In business, likewise, any number of factors may lead to success, independent of the quality of a product or management’s decisions. Yet it is all too common for executives to attribute the success of their organizations to their own insights and managerial skills and ignore or downplay random events or external factors outside their control. Imagine, for instance, that you are leading a team whose numbers are great: It’s tempting to credit yourself or your team’s actions for that achievement, though it may actually just be a stroke of good luck or the result of your competitors’ problems.

Research (including a classic study by the psychologists Edward Jones and Victor Harris) has proved that this is normal human behavior. Moreover, when examining the bad performance of others, people tend to do the exact opposite. In exercises that we conducted in executive education classes at Harvard, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Carnegie Mellon University, most participants, when evaluating the success of others, minimized the role of leadership skills and strategy and maximized the role of external factors and luck.

Another study found that people also have trouble adjusting for the difficulty of the situation when judging successes. (See the sidebar “The Challenge of Discounting Easy Successes.”) In business this bias can affect many critical decisions, including whom to hire or promote, which products to launch, and which practices to spread throughout the organization. Someone who has led a thriving business in a highly profitable industry, for instance, often appears more attractive than a similarly skilled or even more qualified candidate who has struggled to lead a firm in an industry in which most companies are failing.

The Challenge of Discounting Easy Successes

The inability of people to adjust for degree of difficulty when assessing accomplishments was clearly demonstrated in a study that one of us, Francesca Gino, conducted with Don Moore of Berkeley and Sam Swift and Zachariah Sharek of Carnegie Mellon. Students at a U.S. university assumed the role of admissions officers for an MBA program and were presented with information about candidates’ grade point averages as well as the average GPA at their colleges. In their decisions, the participants overweighted applicants’ nominal GPAs and underweighted the effect of the grading norms at different schools. In other words, they didn’t take into account the ease with which grades were earned.

We repeatedly observed pharmaceutical companies making these kinds of attribution errors in choosing which drugs to kill or push forward. They selected drugs whose initial tests were successful as potential winners and allocated more money to them for further testing and development. But often managers assumed a success was due to the unique abilities of their in-house scientists and didn’t consider whether it could be due to greater general knowledge in that particular scientific area, which competitors might have, too.

In addition, we found that long lead times can blind executives to problems with their current strategies. Again, consider the pharmaceutical industry. Because it takes 12 years, on average, to get a drug from discovery to market, a company’s performance today has relatively little to do with its most recent actions and decisions. Yet both managers and investors often attribute today’s high performance to the company’s current strategy, management, and scientists.

How You Fail Determines Whether You’ll Succeed

The research dismisses the common idea that success is a product of sheer chance and also sheds new light on what it really takes for an amateur to become a winner.

To simply “try, try again,” for example, is not enough. The data show that individuals below the learning threshold made just as many attempts as the those above, and likely worked even harder, since they insisted on making changes to their perfectly good earlier attempts. But this hard work was fruitless, since it wasn’t incorporating past tries.

For Wang, the lesson is clear: people should place a high premium on feedback, as well as on lessons they learn through failure. “These are two very valuable assets you now have to launch another attempt,” he says. But the study reveals that they’re only valuable if you can incorporate them into new attempts, bearing out the Silicon Valley mantra that “failing better” is key to success.

The study also dispels some of the mystery behind who succeeds and who doesn’t. The researchers found that the learning ability of a given entrepreneur, scientist, or terrorist can be discerned by simply measuring how much time passes between their first few attempts. As a result, their model was able to accurately predict which entrepreneurs, scientists, and terrorists would eventually succeed long before any outward signs of success appear.

“Thomas Edison said, ‘people give up because they don’t know how close they are to success,’” Wang explains. “Well, what the paper contributes is, now we know. Because if we have data about how you fail, we have a better idea of where you’re headed.”


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