Going splat in life doesn't mean you have to give up (except when you should). Here are the lessons you need that can't be learned any other way.
I have a friend who is a lawyer. Let's call him Lewis. Lewis worked for seven years at his Boston firm -- from 9 a.m. until 1 in the morning or later. Often I would get texts from him at 3 or 4 in the morning when he tried to have a "social life." Usually, these texts would refer to what cereal he was eating alone since no restaurants were open at that hour: No need for milk if store closed. Totally possible to eat Raisin Bran with water.
All this sacrifice was going to be worth it, Lewis told me, because since he had put in all this time, he would one day make partner and live the life he had always dreamed of: earning all the money that he'd grown up without as a child and working at his own pace, which would allow him to get married and start a family. His fellow attorneys had all assured him that he had almost reached his professional goal; the announcement of his promotion would be a mere formality. Then one day he was called into the office and told that he was not only not making partner but that there was no point in keeping him on: There had been a change in opinion about his future there -- goodbye.
He was destroyed. I tried to comfort him with my scrapbook of flameouts (my workout plan, my attempt to play guitar on stage, the time I didn't get the job and, worse, my friend got it) but nothing worked. Lewis needed hope -- and facts. Both of which Heidi Grant Halvorson, psychologist and author of the astonishingly well-researched "Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals," turned out of have in abundance, because the truth is that certain successes -- be they personal or professional -- can only grow out of failure, if not multiple failures, as long we understand how to use these so-called setbacks.
The "What Went Wrong?" Success
Hundreds of psychological studies have been done on this kind of achievement, says Halvorson -- and they all end up with the same findings: Much of success is dependent not on talent but on learning from your mistakes.
About half the people in the world believe that ability in any area -- be it creative or social skill, math or knitting -- is innate. You arrive on the earth with a skill; you do not learn it. When these people fail, they will often say, "I'm just not a born knitter," or "I'm not a natural math person." Inherent ability (or lack of it) is their explanation for success (or a lack of it).
The other half believe instead that someone might have a preference or propensity for something -- say painting or speaking foreign languages -- but that this ability can be improved through practice or training. When they bomb a task, they do not say, "I'm just not good at painting." Instead, they say, "Maybe I should have asked for help from an art teacher." Or, "Maybe I was too overcommitted to really pay attention to my artwork." Or, "Maybe I didn't try hard enough."
By thinking this way, they're evaluating not who they are but what they did. Take Lewis, who once he got over the shock of his future imploding, asked himself what went wrong. Did he put too many hours in, which may have resulted in sloppy work? (No.) Did he underestimate how important it was to socialize with his boss and to ask for support? (Yes.)
It's almost impossible to ask those questions while yelling at yourself, "I'm a failure," or "There's something wrong with me." But when you shift your thinking, you make it possible to see what you can control—your behavior, your planning, your reactions -- and change those things. The troubleshooting skills that you gain in the process are what you need to reach your goals.
The "Dust Yourself Off" Success
Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor who gave the "Last Lecture" in 2007 while dying of pancreatic cancer, talked about how "brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough."
Academics have discovered a lot about the people who find success on the other side of life's brick walls. One of the most famous studies took place at West Point. The first year at this elite U.S. Army institution is the most difficult; one in 20 students leaves. What researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania found is that they could predict who would drop out and who would stay far more effectively than West Point's admissions office, which made its assessment based on each student's SATs, achievement, leadership and physical prowess. The researchers based their picks on only one thing: grit.
Another closely related study evaluated the grit of the Scripps National Spelling Bee competitors. Scientists were able to tell how far a speller would advance based only on their level of grit, mostly because gritty kids study harder. Which brings up an encouraging point for all adults: Grit is learned behavior. To increase it -- and use it to propel you forward -- all have to do to is try, try, try, try, try, try again. The tenacity you learn every time you fail will get you up and over that brick wall.
The "This Is What I Was Meant to Do" Success
There are other types of achievements, of course: the "I made it to Friday" feat, the "I survived a 5K and will never do it again" victory. Although those successes are untouched by flat-out failure, they aren't of the soul-lifting variety either: the dazzling job, the perfect relationship, the happiness-inducing hobby. In pursuit of those inspirational successes, we do a lot of starting, working and failing. Sometimes the failure is meant to expose areas where we need a skills improvement. Sometimes, as Pausch explained, the failure is a brick wall to test how committed we are, how very much we want it. But occasionally, the failure is a big honking sign to change direction.
So how to know which is which? My friend Lewis was able to objectively suss out the reasons that he had been let go (forgetting to bond with his employers, his insecurity about asking for assistance). He'd proven in his job that he had stamina and grit to pursue a goal. He knew he needed to send out résumés and look for jobs at similar firms. And yet he resisted -- playing computer games all day and, no joke, sending friends like me pictures of his new cat, Buddy.
There is a way to distinguish whether a failure is a signal to double down or walk away, says Halvorson. If, when things get rough, you remain committed and even entranced by your goal, you should keep going. If what you're doing is costing you too much time and energy or the process isn't what you thought it would be or it's not bringing you joy or you find yourself emailing kitten photos, you need to get out and...get a new goal.
Replacing your old dream with a new one is imperative, says Halvorson. Otherwise, you'll sit around and stew in your previous failure when you could and should be asking yourself, "Hey, what do I want to do now? What are my strengths? What would make me happy if I were doing it for the next 20 or 30 years?"
For Lewis, this meant trying a new kind of job as a lawyer, one at a nonprofit firm, with regular hours, which allowed him the time to meet his neighbor (a Pilates teacher) and get married. He switched his old idea of "making it" with a new, more appealing one. The success he found included all three of his goals: family, freedom of schedule, and financial security. He only achieved it, though, after failing at his original corporate law–fueled vision.
Yes, there are those people who, unlike Lewis and the rest of us, do not need failure to triumph. They pick up the cello in a single afternoon; they rise right up through a multinational corporation after one presentation. These kinds of successes do not add much wisdom, I suspect, or gratitude. They're fireworks, the kind the rest of us look up at and admire and, all too often, try to jump up and grab -- when, in fact, we need to stay down on the ground, where all the stumbling goes on. That is, until we've gained the confidence and experience to walk straight up the mountain.