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The Benefits of Failure

Failure can increase resilience and spur creativity, among other advantages.

Key points

  • Our society is so competitive and focused on winning that we sometimes overlook the silver linings of failure.
  • Failure can spur creativity and innovation, as well as conferring other benefits.
  • Everyone can learn from failure, improving their resilience to the setbacks they will inevitably encounter in life.
Nicola Barts/Pexels
Source: Nicola Barts/Pexels

We live in a competitive society that has big winners and big losers. Educators, motivation experts, life coaches, sports psychologists, and other mentors mainly teach us how to approach success, how to be winners. Few teach us a much more valuable lesson—how to cope with failure.

A society that worships winners tends to make horrible choices, whether considered from a moral or a practical perspective. Consider the widespread practice of preferring job applicants with a near-perfect grade point average over those with more varied scores.

The conventional view is that someone with a near-perfect GPA will become a near-perfect employee. Yet, there is a glaring flaw in this reasoning. A straight-A student is not a perfect person but someone who has never done badly in a course. This means that they have never really been tested. If they have not been tested to the extent of receiving at least some weak grades, then they have also missed out on learning to cope with failure. Such individuals tend to be perfectionists, and this trait is associated with diminished resilience in response to failure.

An untested employee is like an untried soldier, liable to break down under fire from real-world difficulties and challenges. Even if they do not fall apart emotionally, they tend to be rigid, narcissistic, and uncreative.

Although it might seem perverse to claim that prior failure is an advantage in a job candidate, contrary to the received wisdom of personnel recruiters, experiencing failure is actually the best qualification for any difficult occupation. Of course, the context matters, and we are discussing situations where the goal had been potentially achievable and not some inflated pipe dream. Also excluded are purely personal failures, such as alcoholism or criminal activities.

On a first impression, the young Theodore Roosevelt was described as a “second-rate intellect, first-rate temperament.” Roosevelt survived a long litany of failures in his life, from crashing out of politics to watching his cattle herd die.

Of course, Roosevelt’s failures were balanced by a staggering list of accomplishments, from founding the environmental movement, working for world peace, and tackling poverty in America to busting monopolies and leading the country out of the Great Depression. Not bad for a Republican one-term president.

So what are the advantages of experiencing failure?

People who fail repeatedly develop persistence in the face of difficulties. President Harry Truman was perceived as a flop during his own life but stuck to his guns when it really mattered, such as firing the popular but insubordinate General MacArthur. Thomas Edison is remembered for the incandescent light bulb, among many other key inventions in the Age of Electricity. He is said to have failed with a thousand different filaments before hitting on a material that worked.

Only people with extensive histories of failure could survive the difficulties that these individuals endured. Such dogged persistence is not a universal trait, of course. If it were, everyone would have a Ph.D.

With success, people keep on doing the same thing. When they fail, they are forced to adapt and change. That is not just a human characteristic but constitutes a basic feature of how the mammalian brain works. Research on monkeys found that when they were reinforced for looking in the correct direction, this action was more likely to be repeated. If they gave the wrong response, they were less likely to repeat it,

If a lab rat no longer gets rewarded for pressing a lever that had yielded food pellets before, it gets visibly upset. As its frantic efforts fail, it resorts to all manner of strange or novel reactions, from grooming itself to biting the lever or leaping into the air. It is learning that the world has changed and what had worked before no longer works.

When one combines emotionalism with originality, that is fairly close to what most people think of as artistic creativity. Artists are not necessarily frustrated people but tend to be dissatisfied with what they have accomplished previously and try to do something better or something new.

The magical power of failure is not restricted to the arts or to political leadership.

It applies to all fields of human endeavor, including the crass activity of financial money grubbing. Anyone who bought Apple stock when it was dirt cheap and made a lot of money learned nothing in the process. Those who bought at the peak and lost 40 percent of their stake are still scratching their heads. Like the rat in the experiment, they learned via failure. A bet that had worked well in the past may fail dismally in the future.

Never underestimate the magical properties of failure. It increases resilience in the face of unfavorable outcomes and gets the creative juices flowing.

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