How Failure Breeds Success
Our weaknesses are the source of our strengths; our failures are the roots of our successes.
This is not another motivational cliché, this is a fact of history and science. Evolutionary theorists long ago concluded that the power of the human species lay in its weaknesses. Aware of their bodies’ fragility compared to that of other animals, human beings had to compensate for their powerlessness in order to survive. Individuals were too weak to hunt by themselves, so they collaborated and hunted in groups. Collective activity emerged, communication evolved, tools were built, and the human species ruled all others.
Charles Darwin supposedly said that “it is not the strongest of the species that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” Humans survived because they could adapt to nature. The motivation to adapt came from their powerlessness: we only adapt to processes that we cannot change and that lie beyond our power. Through such adaptation, we develop new strengths. Humans could not change the laws of nature, but they successfully adapted to the laws of nature by developing new forms of organized activity.
History is rich with examples of individuals who demonstrated how strength emerges from weakness. Vygotsky lists some of these examples:
Having struggled with a speech defect, Demosthenes went on to become one of Greece’s greatest orators. The stuttering Demulen was an outstanding orator; the blind, deaf-mute Helen Keller a famous writer and prophet of optimism (Vygotsky, Collected Works).
From their challenging situations, Demosthenes, Demuelen and Keller developed superior strengths. They accepted their weaknesses but refused to retreat into helplessness and self-pity. They demonstrated that with every weakness comes a drive for defiance, a drive for compensation, a “combative psychological tendency” (Vygotsky, ibid). A weakness is an obstacle, and obstacles are the places where a new energy is born. It is through obstacles that the flow of water becomes an electrical energy that lightens up whole cities.
We are born helpless. Thanks to our helplessness, we develop new capacities. A baby tries to grasp an object that she (or he) wants. Unable to reach the object, and aware of the limitations of her body, she points to it and directs her caregiver toward it (Vygotsky, ibid). It is the failure to grasp that creates the need for pointing and the capacity to point. It is the limitation of what could be expressed by pointing that creates the need for talking. And it is the failure of our words that motivates us to learn new words. It is from failure that learning arises and that new capacities evolve.
Failure is painful, especially when it happens after hard work and genuine dedication. The pain could become a drive for compensation and bouncing back, but it could also lead to helplessness and reduce one’s self-worth. A Chinese proverb states that “failure is the mother of success,” but failure can also be the end of ambition. Some athletes respond to loss with additional work; others quit. Some students study more after they fail a test; others dropout.
Motivational psychologist Carol Dweck proposed a theory that explains the different types of reactions to failure. According to Dweck, it is our theory about ability that determines our reaction to failure. When we believe that abilities are fixed (fixed mindset), we interpret failure as evidence for the lack of ability, and we stop trying. 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 one of her experiments, Dweck examined the brain activity of individuals after they made mistakes. She found that the brain of individuals with a growth mindset responded to mistakes with increased activity, while the brain of individuals with a fixed mindset responded to mistakes with almost no activity. Mistakes activate the growth mindset brain and set it on fire; mistakes deactivate the fixed mindset brain. (For more about Dweck’s work, see her Ted Talk referenced below.)
No matter what our attitude is, failure is going to be painful. The challenge is to respond to pain with hope. After he lost the final of a national chess tournament, an 8-year-old boy who had thought he was invincible felt heartbroken. He felt that his chess life was falling apart, but he persevered: “I responded to heartbreak with hard work.” He grew up to become a chess master, and a martial arts world champion (see Waitzkin, 2008).
Commenting on aging, Susan Bordo wrote “We change, we age, we die. Learning to deal with this is part of the existential challenge — and richness — of mortal life” (Bordo, 2004). Besides learning to deal with the facts of aging and death, we need to learn to deal with the inevitability of failures and weaknesses: To reach success, failure is inevitable; and with failure comes feelings of powerlessness and weakness. Those who never fail and who always feel invincible have never tried new endeavors.
Bordo, S. (2004). Unbearable weight: Feminism, Western culture, and the body. University of California Press.
Dweck, C. (2014). The Power of Believing That You Can Improve. TED Talk. Transcript and video available: https://www. ted. com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_ can_improve/transcript.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1997). The collected works of LS Vygotsky. Springer Science & Business Media.
Waitzkin, J. (2008). The art of learning: An inner journey to optimal performance. Simon and Schuster.
Rahal, L. (2018). How Failure Breeds Success. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 19, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-failure-breeds-success/