We’ve Believed That Failure Was the First Step to Success for Years. Now We Have a Problem

People tend to overestimate their ability to overcome failure, which has individual (and societal) implications.

We’ve believed that failure is the first step to success for years, but it's not
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“Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” These three phrases have become the ABC's of popular management literature. Although they come from a story by Samuel Becket, they’re nothing more than a good slogan for something repeated ad nauseam. The idea that failure has a positive side: It’s the first step towards success.

Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

The “exaggerated benefits” of failure. Researchers from the business schools at Northwestern, Cornell, Yale, and Columbia have painstakingly examined—in 11 separate studies involving more than 1,800 participants—what they call the “exaggerated benefits” of failure.

Because we believe it. According to the researchers’ data, people tend to overestimate the rate at which they achieve success after failure. Whether it was professionals—doctors, nurses, or lawyers—passing a professional exam, people with addictions in rehabilitation, or those trying to change their habits after heart disease, in all cases, the participants believed that there would be more success after failure than there was.

Not only that, but participants also incorrectly assumed that people focus on their mistakes and manage to learn from them in the future. And I say “wrongly” because, as the study explains, it’s challenging to learn from an unpleasant experience. Failure acts is demotivating and a threat to self-esteem, which leads to the adoption of self-defense strategies that prevent proper learning.

And that has implications, of course. As the researchers learned, the most interesting thing is that these ideas influence our predisposition to help others. And it makes sense. The idea that failure is positive—and that it increases the chance of future success—doesn’t motivate us to help those who fail.

In fact, as soon as the researchers gave the participants the actual data—when professionals failed the test, how many addicts relapse, how many people went on to have the same lifestyle after a heart attack—they were more motivated to support initiatives to help those who are struggling.

What can we learn from this? As Ryan Sultan, director of the Mental Health Informatics Lab at Columbia University, told NBC, the most important lesson here is the following: “When we have failed at something, it is not enough to try again.” As the researchers make clear, this is easier said than done, but recognizing that failure isn't always the first step to success is an excellent way to put it on track to become that step.

Image | Igor Omilaev

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