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Does Failure Groom Us for Success?

does failure breed success?

“Do not be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again.” ~ Richard Branson

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” ~ Thomas A. Edison

“Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose. Nobody goes undefeated all the time. If you can pick up after a crushing defeat, and go on to win again, you are going to be a champion someday.” ~ Wilma Rudolph

An entrepreneur, an inventor and an athlete, emerging from varying life experiences with a shared perspective. They have learned that before the ultimate success may initially come several failures.

They are not alone, as some of the world’s most iconic figures had a long runway to traverse before they each skyrocketed to fame. They include: Steve Jobs, Milton Hershey, Walt Disney and Arianna Huffington.

Relationships end, businesses fall apart, folks change careers, students drop out of school, those in recovery relapse. These may be considered failures or they can be viewed as an opportunity for do-overs.

Consider a child who is learning to walk. Generally, at around a year old, he or she takes a first step. Most likely it will result in a tumble to the ground, with diaper padding cushioning the landing. If there are supportive adults around, clapping and cheering will occur. That little one is likely going to pull up again and take the next step. Nowhere in that child’s mind is the thought, “I’m so clumsy that I will never learn to walk and will scoot around on my butt for the rest of my life.”

This anecdote was shared by a friend and it stands as a testament to the power of paradox in the area of success and failure.

“Failure grooms us for success: I heard this incredible story the other day. That at a dinner table, a dad asked all his kids each night: “What did you fail at today?” And they would each recount their failures for the day. And he would celebrate them. He would always say: “Good for you! You tried something. You put yourself out there. That is the real success anyway. Keep trying new things. Don’t worry about how it turns out. Just keep trying, learning and growing.”

This counterintuitive approach to parenting encourages curiosity and expansion, rather than fear. This is a rare occurrence, as most view failure as an indication of character flaw, of inadequacy or incompetence.

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Maria was taught that nothing could be considered failure if she put her heart and soul into her endeavors. She grew up in a family in which education was valued. There were books in nearly every room of her childhood home. Even the bathroom was not exempt as her father referred to it as “the library.” She was read to by her parents each night before bed and many happy hours were spent at the library up the street.

Her questions were met with the best responses her parents could offer and when they didn’t know the answers, they told her, “Look it up.” As a result, she learned to research until the resolution was found. They encouraged her to stretch her comfort zones in academics and athletics. She became an A student and a blue ribbon-winning swimmer. In the midst of all of this, she still had self-doubt, which even the most confident-seeming person can harbor. Her fear was not specifically of failure, but rather, of disappointing her parents and others who believed in her. This was not directly communicated to her, but she interpreted their confidence in her as contingent on her performance.

Megan McArdle, MBA, the author of The Upside of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key To Success, reinforces the belief, “You’re not a failure. You’re someone who has failed. . . just like everyone else who ever lived on the planet, from Alexander the Great to Abraham Lincoln. Failure is what makes success possible. It’s how we learn what doesn’t work — and therefore how we learn what does.”

Does Failure Build Character?

According to New York Times journalist and commentator David Brooks, who penned The Road to Character: “We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character.”

Success and Failure Seesaw

There are times when we feel as if we are on a seesaw that has us up in the air with delight that our goals have been achieved and then bumping our bottoms on the ground as we feel let down that we haven’t crossed the finish line ahead of the pack. Here are some markers that shape our relationship with these two polarities:

  • Lack of belief in your own abilities or faith in them
  • You have figuratively fallen and skinned your knees (or perhaps literally) and are fearful of getting hurt again
  • Perfectionistic tendencies
  • Unworthiness to have what you want
  • Failure can be a self-fulfilling prophecy
  • Your internalized definition of what success means
  • What you were told success means by the adults in your life
  • There may be a family history of failure that seems as if it is encoded in DNA that is passed down from generation to generation
  • Your role models for success and failure
  • An entrenched belief that before you can be happy, you have to be successful, rather than the other way around

How to see failure as friend, not foe:

  • See it as a learning experience rather than one that is demoralizing
  • Refrain from perceiving it as a measure of your worth as a person
  • Be willing to take calculated risks
  • Know that most endeavors are not a matter of life and death
  • Ask yourself if a particular outcome will matter five years down the road
  • Be curious and ask yourself, “Hmmmm…I wonder if I can do it this way…. I wonder how this can work…”
  • Have ‘now what?’ thinking. You can complain, “Oh no, now what?” or motivate yourself by inquiring, “Okay, now what?”
  • Know what you can and can’t control
  • Envision successful scenarios and keep your eye on the prize
  • Know that progress and not perfection is the ideal
  • Stretch comfort zones to the point that a manageable bit of nervousness (not full blown anxiety or panic) is present as fuel for your endeavors
  • View obstacles as exercise equipment that makes you stronger and more flexible
  • Take responsibility for your choices, successes and failures
  • Be open to constructive feedback from those who have been where you are
  • Have a vision for your life and move in that direction, knowing that there will be detours
  • Use positive self-talk to reinforce what you do want, rather than what you don’t want
  • Recognize your resilience, remembering that you have survived everything that has ever happened to you

Gino Santa Maria/Bigstock

Does Failure Groom Us for Success?

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist and interviewer, licensed social worker, interfaith minister, radio host and best-selling author.

APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2018). Does Failure Groom Us for Success?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 26 Aug 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.