The League of Extraordinary Losers
SOUND HARSH? Then you’re thinking about failure all wrong—and it could cost you. Here, the new research-proven secret to success (that involves a whole lot of messing up first).
Once upon a time, there was a young boy in Wilmington, North Carolina, who loved basketball. As a high school sophomore, he didn’t make the varsity team. So he spent his time on JV working his butt off—sometimes scoring as many as 40 points per game.
Still, as his years playing basketball went on, he missed more than 9,000 shots. He lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times his team relied on him to make a game-winning basket—and he missed.
That boy? His name was Michael Jordan. And while you probably don’t need us to tell you what happened to him, it bears repeating: He became arguably the greatest professional basketball player in history.
“I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life,” Jordan has said (in one of his many Nike commercials). “And that is why I succeed.”
Yes, we know: To say that failure is a key ingredient to success sounds counterintuitive. Common sense—and an endless stream of flashy success stories from athletes and celebrities— may have you thinking that those who always succeed are the ones who move ahead. Failure, on the other hand, is to be feared—and avoided at all costs.
The truth is, more and more research is proving that perfection is not only overrated but also misunderstood. Making mistakes is inevitable—and good for you! “Instead of focusing on the failure, focus on the opportunity it presents,” suggests psychologist Madeline Levine, author of The Price of Privilege. She and other experts agree: This simple shift in thinking has the power to change the entire course of your future.
To understand why you might fear failure so much, it’s helpful to take a look back to your grade-school days. As early as kindergarten, many students are thrust into a gold-star culture, where a very narrow definition of achievement is rewarded over and over again. “My second-grade teacher called my mom in for a meeting because I liked to draw hands on my lower-case t’s,” remembers Marilu Lopez, the Choices art director. “I felt so bad about it at the time, but now I realize I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I was just being myself—an artist.”
Maybe your school even stamped some kids with labels like “gifted” and “honors”—words that put extra emphasis on certain skills over others, and made you feel like if you weren’t smart or talented already, you would never be. These labels can motivate some students to strive for perfection at all costs, say experts—and discourage them from trying things at which they might not excel.
This all-or-nothing mind-set exists on a much larger level in middle and high school too—only instead of stars, you’re trained to strive for straight A’s and the perfect résumé of extracurricular activities for your college application. Some parents end up magnifying the stress you may be under to get it right.
Throw social media into the mix, and it’s no wonder you may feel a crushing pressure to live up to unrealistic standards of perfection (in school, in your social life, in everything) right now. Think about it: “Everyone’s posting the most fabulous events of their life,” explains Amanda Mintzer, a psychologist at Child Mind Institute, “without the backstories.”
THE SCIENCE OF GRIT
So what’s so bad about this deep-seated desire to get everything right—or quit trying? Experts say that when you’re afraid of failing, you could start making decisions for the wrong reasons. You may choose the safe path (think: playing soccer for the 10th season) rather than pursuing what truly satisfies or excites you (say, a budding interest in music), just because you may stink at something new—at least at first.
But the consequences are bigger and broader than simply missing out on pursuing a new passion for guitar or violin; you also avoid developing what psychologist Angela Duckworth calls “grit.” In several studies, Duckworth has found that the single most important factor when it comes to lifelong achievement is not talent or intellect, as those grade-school era labels may have made you believe. It’s grit, aka stick-to-itiveness. (Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term goals, Duckworth explains on her website.)
That’s correct: What matters most when it comes to improving (whether it’s your basketball shot, your conversational Spanish, or that one pesky problem on your math homework) is learning from your mistakes—and having the desire to keep on trying until you get it right.
Perhaps no group has embraced this mistake-making mind-set more passionately than today’s leaders in the ever-changing field of technology. In fact, these visionaries have their very own name for grit—they call it “failing up”—and operate under the notion that a failed app or website isn’t a failure at all. It’s just an opportunity to build something bigger and better next time, using what they’ve learned.
Take, for example, Evan Williams. Back in 2005, he co-developed a podcasting company called Odeo. It never really took off. But instead of giving up, he tried again—and became the co-founder of one of the biggest tech success stories of all time: Twitter.
Surprised? There are actually hundreds of eventual-success stories like Williams’s. Tech leaders even gather throughout the world, on six different continents, for one-day conferences called FailCons. “Sometimes things just don’t go as planned,” the FailCon website says. “But that doesn’t mean you should stop trying. Failure is still a taboo topic all over the world, but we’re working to change that.”
While FailCon is surely an inspiring experience, you don’t have to attend a fancy event to learn from your mistakes or setbacks. Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure, recommends this smart strategy for shifting your mind-set: “Try as often as possible to think about the process over the product.” She explains, “The process of learning or getting better at soccer or piano is far more important than some end result out there, like a test score or one recital.”
Lahey and other experts agree: As uncomfortable as it can be in the moment, we need to mess up or have our plans derailed. That’s how we grow. That’s how we prepare for life. That’s how we build grit. And perhaps most important, that’s how we figure out what we truly love.
To understand this fully, let’s consider young Michael Jordan again and put ourselves in his size 13 shoes. (Remember: This is before he had his very own line of highly coveted Nikes.)
If you’re Jordan, this setback in high school gives you the chance to reflect: What else might I like, other than basketball? Is this sport my dream—or can I do something else, like try out for the play?
Take this pivot approach, which we’ll call path A, and you may end up with the lead role in The Crucible, rather than a season’s worth of sulking.
Jordan himself, however, chose path B. He decided to double down on hard work, using his true love of the sport to power through long practices on the JV court. This is because he enjoyed the process just as much as the product—shooting just as much as scoring, playing just as much as winning.
Neither path indicates a failure. Neither path is guaranteed to lead to any one outcome. Both are wide-open opportunities that give you grit—which perfectly defines your brand-new definition of success.
Click on the image below to access our site's new slideshow feature! Our first slideshow highlights the "failure résumés" of six successful adults!