Is Failure the Secret to Success?

As this writer knows, a seemingly harmless slight from an authority figure as a kid can undermine your confidence as an adult. But she’s working on getting over it.

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“Hey dude,” the text began. “I had a really great time yesterday. But I woke up with all these weird and uncomfortable feelings.”

Heart sinking, I fumbled for my glasses; I’d been asleep. Glasses on, the words on my phone screen became sharper: “I think you’re so fucking awesome. But there’s something missing for me. I don’t really know what.”

Groaning, I flopped back into my pillow. Fuck. My second date with Cara, a funny, freckled spitfire, had been pretty fantastic, I thought. All the elements were there: a day at the beach, drinks at a surf-side bar, and a little bit of, uh, canoodling high up in a lifeguard chair. We stayed out until past four in the morning, talking and roaming. “I’ve never felt so comfortable with someone,” Cara kept saying. After we climbed down from the chair, I spun out to the water’s edge. “Thank you,” I whispered, toes touching the sea foam. Maybe, finally, my “life slump” period would break. High on kissing endorphins, I thought that just maybe my luck was turning.

But no.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Cara’s message continued. “But I can’t continue dating you with these feelings I have. I’m so sorry, babe.”

For months and months, I’d been stuck at second dates. Some were with really great, funny, engaging women, and a few seemed to feel the same about me. Yet the inevitable Dear John letter would arrive even from them—a text, an email, or simply radio silence. I couldn’t figure it out, so I gently pressed Cara for more information. Had I done something? Not done something? “It’s definitely not you,” her last text read. “I could postulate about why I feel like this, but it’s not black and white. I just woke up with these feelings and I had to be honest with myself and you.”

This didn’t help. What also didn’t help was the voicemail I received from my employer later that same day. They needed to find someone else for my position, she said, sounding genuinely sad, someone with a “more technical” skill set. The job was supposed to have lasted for the next month and change, which had meant money I desperately needed. “I’m so sorry,” Stacey said, in her soft Southern accent. “We really like you.”

Just a year and a half ago, my life looked completely different. Good job, love, the whole thing. “This is what I’ve worked so hard for,” I told anyone who would listen. I had pretty much all I’d dreamed of, and it felt awesome.

But by 2013, the bubble had burst twofold. My contract was not renewed at work. My love life took an unexpected turn around the same time. Neither could be avoided, I suppose, but the timing presented me with a double whammy nonetheless. My foundation began to crumble. More than once I found myself on the floor of my apartment at two in the morning, bawling my eyes out. “It’s not supposed to be like this,” I kept repeating. “What happened?”




What if the secret to success is failure? In 2011, the New York Times posed this question as a headline for an article in its “education issue,” making the argument that kids who learn how to deal with and overcome failure become stronger adults. The article cited studies and insights and opinions from experts, programs developed to foster positive character traits in students, motivational slogans—on and on.

I spend a good deal of time thinking about rejection and failure these days. How does one bounce back, again and again and again? How come some can and some cannot? What makes one person “good” at failure and what causes another to be “bad” at it? When I am both passed over for jobs and quickly spiral into a self-hating tailspin in tandem because of being passed over for jobs, I wonder what it is that I’m doing so wrong—and why. Is this common in my peer group, I often wonder, or am I in the minority? And, either way, what the hell is going on?

Unlike the kids featured in the Times article previously mentioned, my generation—Generation Y (yes, I’m a millennial)—had no T-shirts proudly proclaiming their wearers to have “infinite character.” When we entered junior high, my school chums and I were dealt with more than talked to—a surprise to us, as we were in what was an ostensibly progressive school. But these were the days just before the pharmaceutical companies really came a’callin’ for the under-15 set. The prescription of ADD/ADHD medication was not as common when I was a tween as it is for kids now. Instead, we were shoved off to shrinks, “learning specialists, or we were branded with the all-encompassing term “problem” (as in “problem child”). I would bet good money the “problem” demarcation was applied to me more than once, or, maybe “troubled.” The funny thing is, these demarcations wouldn’t have been wrong. So … What happened?

Children should, of course, not be encouraged or enabled to carry on with their bad behavior—quite the opposite, as unchecked aggression, mean streaks, or manipulative tendencies can stick around well into adult life. It doesn’t serve a child well to ignore her hot temper, pass off violence as rough-housing, or foster petty arguments, and there are recommended ways to stave off all of these things. But here’s the rub: If a child is viewed as precocious, adults can ascribe to him an emotional maturity he does not yet have, giving kids feedback not suited to their age level as a result. It’s a common and understandable mistake, but it can slay a child.

I distinctly remember the vitriol of a teacher I liked and respected after I made an offhand comment about  not liking a song. The anger in her eyes shocked me as she fired off a sudden and stinging dress-down. This teacher disliked my “negative attitude,” and had commented on it before, but without such harshness. She clearly thought she would get through to me with this approach, but I had no tools to parse the message she wanted me to receive, nor could I glean what I was supposed to do to “fix” myself. I was only 11.

I’ve often wondered how much direct and ultimately confusing, ill-timed, and/or unconstructive criticism the average kid receives during childhood—criticism of them, to them. Once, a friend’s father called me a “barbarian” for not putting my napkin in my lap—not so bad on first pass, but that was 20 years ago, and I still remember. It’s amazing how much potential the patterns of one’s childhood interactions have for shaping their eventual adulthood. In 2005, Boston Globe reporter Barbara F. Meltz wrote about it in her piece, “Criticism Can Eat Away at a Youth’s Self-Worth,” noting that “when we criticize, a child comes to think there is something wrong with her. Not what she says, not with the choice she makes or her decision-making process, but with her. With the essence of who she is.” From there, it snowballs. In Ms. Meltz’s article, this single sentence is given its own line: “How we communicate with a child is how he ends up communicating with himself.”

This statement resonated instantly. Yes, that’s me, I thought. When I perform badly or made a critical error, I become furious with myself, playing both the frustrated child and an outlandish version of the angry adult in my head. “I suck at this!” Says parenting expert Adele Faber in Ms. Meltz’s article: a kid who comes under fire ”learns to condemn herself and to find fault with others, to doubt her own judgment and to distrust the intention of others. She lives with the expectation of impending doom because her sense of herself is that she can’t manage: ‘I’m stupid, I’m hopeless.’ ” Those words—stupid, hopeless—have dogged me since my playground days.

Really any relationship in which power and authority are unequal can have serious consequences when it comes to self-esteem and worth. In 2001, Lillian Eby, at the time, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia who has since been promoted and tenured, caught the interest of Businessweek for her examination of a common but potentially negative social construct: the mentor-mentee setup. In conversation with Businessweek’s Pamela Mendels, Eby details a study she conducted with mentees: “We looked at the extent to which protégés who have negative experiences also report lower job satisfaction or a higher intention to leave the organization or higher stress.” She says, “we found that negative mentoring does appear to influence all three.”

Often, though, it’s unconstructive criticism in childhood that people hold onto for years, regardless of if it is warranted or not. A few searches on Reddit turns up a thread called “What’s the rudest/meanest thing a teacher has ever done to you?” Amid smaller grievances and funny anecdotes about rotten teachers receiving their comeuppance or guidance counselors eating their words are stories of true cruelty in the name of criticism. One, written by a woman using the handle AbleSeacat, begins with “this is hard to talk about.” She describes a scenario in which a teacher she had in middle school kept what she termed a “complaint book” in the classroom as a way for students to air their grievances with one another or issues with the class. AbleSeacat describes how this teacher turned a class-wide meeting into a verbal firing squad. “The whole class just proceeded to list off the things they didn’t like about me and my teacher went around one by one giving them all a turn to insult and humiliate [me], all while shaking her head as if she was [in] consensus,” AbleSeacat writes. “And when I would try to defend myself she would scold me about how interrupting was rude and maybe I if I took in their ‘advice’ I would have an easier time. Made me cry just writing that, damn.”

Even a single comment from a trusted source can be devastating. On another Reddit thread, “what’s the rudest thing an adult has done to you,” the user witch_baby recalls being told, “If you’re going to sing, can you at least sing in tune?” “I haven’t sung while [my father] has been in the house since then and it’s been ten bloody years,” witch_baby, 22 at the time of the post, concludes. Witch_baby’s dad could have simply been frustrated or have had a bad day, but to a 12-year-old, that doesn’t matter. The lesson becomes not how to handle potshots from cranky adults, or that sometimes people take out their anger on others; no, the moral of the story is that your singing sucks.

Or, maybe just that you suck.




A wise man I know likes to tell me, “Fail faster.” This he cribbed from Steve Jobs, who goes down in history as one of America’s most successful flops. Before the Apple empire took off, Mr. Jobs was 86’ed from his own company (only to take it back years later and send sales sky-high).

Failing faster—taking your lumps in stride and persisting regardless – is a great plan, but not always so easily carried out. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or Steve Jobs, for that matter) to understand that self-defeat just breeds inertia and/or more defeat, but this vicious cycle is, well, vicious, and incredibly hard to break. The roots of it, too, may go deeper than we realize. “The more a child thinks there is something intrinsically wrong, the less likely he is to think there is anything he can do about it,” Ms. Meltz writes. It isn’t much of a stretch to see how this carries over into adulthood, too.

These days, it’s getting easier to take the heat when I have to. I hit the job boards again, scouring for gigs in my field. Another date goes on my calendar, and I actively push away thoughts of past rejections. There are good days and bad days, and I try to remind myself of what my former weightlifting coach always said: “Consistency, not perfection.” Making yourself feel bad for feeling bad is the worst.

Nobody has to join the ranks of Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, and all those on the leaderboard of people who failed hard in their earlier days but ultimately became incredibly successful. I mean, heading up a megastar company or being worth a billion plus or having your own magazine sure would be nice, so go for it. Why not?

My goals, though, are far smaller. I’d simply like to bury the hatchet with myself and stop being my own worst critic. There will always be people around willing to take on that role for us, so I think it’s important to be your best ally (most of the time). So that’s what I’m aiming for.

Oh, and to get to that third date …


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