Photo: Victoriano Javier Tornel García via Flickr
Need a little inspiration? Inc has a nice list of quotes to inspire success. I’ll just share with you the top three:
“Success is not final; failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” — Winston S. Churchill
“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” — Herman Melville
“The road to success and the road to failure are almost exactly the same.” — Colin R. Davis
Notice anything these have in common?
All three involve success and failure. There’s a reason for this, and it’s the key behind the psychology of success and failure.
The deal with failure
It turns out that failure is one of humanity’s greatest strengths, and therefore is not the opposite of success, but actually a key factor in meeting our goals. This has been proven by evolutionary scientists such as Charles Darwin, who is credited with saying, “it is not the strongest of the species that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
Changing and adapting is just what humans have done over centuries of evolution. For example, we realized early on that we’re too weak to hunt as individuals — our bodies are too fragile — so we adapted by hunting in groups, which evolved into ever more complex communities, using our collective abilities that have led to not only our ability to survive, but also thrive.
Babies learn through this same mechanism. We’re born helpless, but gradually learn how to point at what we want so caregivers understand what we need. Through further trial and error — by making mistakes and failing sometimes — this eventually helps us learn to walk, talk, and grow into a fully realized adult human.
In short, though it seems counterintuitive, we are designed to turn weakness into our greatest source of strength. It’s through our failures that we learn how we need to adapt and grow in order to be successful, whether that success is finding our next meal or launching a complex business venture.
“Failure is seen as an opportunity to learn and grow,” says Los Angeles-based psychologist Crystal I. Lee. “Failure is an opportunity to be embraced, analyzed, and picked apart, rather than something to run away from.”
Key factors behind success
The good news is that the key traits needed for success — growth mindset, grit, and psychological flexibility — can be cultivated.
How we view and manage failure helps cultivate success in our lives, and that starts with having a growth mindset. A growth mindset means that we believe through hard work and effort we can grow and learn, even in the face of failure. It means we believe mastery is possible if we keep trying, keep taking chances, and work toward improving. Failure is not a permanent condition.
“When we believe that abilities are fixed (fixed mindset), we interpret failure as evidence for the lack of ability, and we stop trying,” writes Louai Rahal, based on psychologist Carol Dweck’s work. “When we believe that abilities can be stretched with learning (growth mindset), we perceive failures as opportunities for learning and we reflect on failures in order to stretch our abilities.”
In order to stretch our abilities, we next need grit, “a combination of passion and perseverance,” says Lee. Having grit means relentlessly pursuing goals and not allowing setbacks to deter progress. It’s more than talent, more than smarts, it’s a practice of constantly learning and putting in the effort.
“Grit is having stamina,” said professor and TED speaker Angela Duckworth. “Grit is sticking with your future day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon — not a sprint.”
To move forward with a growth mindset and grit, the final ingredient is psychological flexibility, or the ability to adapt behavior to a constantly changing world and the changing needs we find ourselves facing.
“Having psychological flexibility lets people think outside of the box and be creative when confronted with an obstacle,” says Lee. “It also allows a person to change course as needed if what [they have] been doing hasn’t been working.”
With these key traits we can learn to harness failure as a tool to move forward and persevere to be successful, but we probably can’t be successful by trying to do this alone.
Don’t go it alone
Just like humans’ adaptive ability to work together as a community while hunting to avoid danger, it’s important for our success to reach out for help when we need it. Humans aren’t built to be solitary, lone creatures. We need connection and support from other people, on our worst days and even when we’re striving for our best.
“People who are successful also learn to accept help from others; they don’t try to do everything by themselves,” says Lee. “They have insight into their own limitations and are comfortable going to others with strengths in their areas of growth.”
At the end of the day, there’s no reason to be afraid of failure. In fact, it’s a critical piece for success itself, the very reason we keep growing, learning, thriving, and ultimately, succeeding.