Failure is an essential element of success


boy showing failing grade on electronic tablet

By Huffington Post

Last month, a Princeton professor tweeted an unusual version of his CV that listed all of the fellowships, grants, degree programs and publications from which he was rejected.

Johannes Haushofer, an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs, wrote this explanation as a preface to his list of failures and rejections:

Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days. This ‘CV of Failures’ is an attempt to balance the record and provide some perspective.

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Indeed, failure is an essential element of success, as many entrepreneurs, inventors and leaders can attest. But that doesn’t make it feel any easier when it happens. A rejection can easily send you spiraling, making you forget — at least momentarily — that failure can be a stepping stone to future triumph.

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Among psychologists, education and parenting experts, there’s a renewed interest in researching our response to failure and the way it shapes our eventual achievements. Studies show that grit, not just intelligence, can predict whether a student will have academic success, and that having a “growth mindset” — the belief that one can learn new skills and expand one’s intelligence — can influence achievement.

Stanford psychology researcher Kyla Haimovitz recently found that young children’s views on their own intelligence — specifically, whether intelligence is fixed from birth or can be expanded — may be shaped by observing their parents’ reactions to the child’s failures. The study showed that if a parent reacts anxiously or negatively to a child’s poor grade instead of teaching the child that there’s something to be learned, the child is more likely to believe that intelligence is predetermined and cannot be changed.

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The danger of comparing yourself to others

If you’re feeling like a loser after a failed effort, it’s probably because you’re comparing your list of failures, which you know all about, to other people’s successes, for which you know only part of the story.

When Haushofer first decided to list his failures in academia, he assumed that a few close friends and colleagues would get a laugh out of it and then move on. Instead, his list of failures resonated with people around the world. It won coverage from The Washington Post, CNBC, The Guardian and other media outlets.

Haushofer meant for his CV to be a commentary on the ups and downs of academic life, and links his willingness to be open about personal failures to a larger trend in science that encourages researchers to be forthcoming about failed experiments, results that didn’t replicate and data-sharing in general.

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“Lots of people are dealing with a lot of pressure in academia, and it might be a useful conversation to have to think about new tools to help people deal with that pressure in academic jobs,” Haushofer told The Huffington Post. “My hope was, to some extent, that it would provide a sense of perspective to students and other young researchers, especially at times when things aren’t going so well.”

Should you make your own CV of failures?

Haushofer’s project, which was inspired by Melanie Stefan, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, has inspired others to write out a list of their own failures. Although, ever the empiricist, Haushofer wants to qualify that there is no scientific evidence he’s aware of that suggests this would do anyone any good.

“It might be the case that more openness of this kind would maybe have positive consequences for psychological wellbeing, but I think that’s an empirical question that should probably be studied by someone,” he concluded.



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