I was struck recently by the comments of a teacher I’ve known for a long time. We were discussing her students’ reactions to bad grades and criticism. She related the shock and protest they express when receiving less-than-stellar evaluations. “It’s almost like they’re phobic about failure.” Yet, while K-12 educators deal with this displeasure, so do college faculty, managers, volunteer leaders, and anyone else expected to evaluate another’s work.
Are we becoming a society of failure phobes? In a word – YES! As a host of philosophers have observed, life is a journey. So is the quest for success. These days, however, we tend to lionize the few who experienced some extraordinary good fortune and extrapolate that if it happened to them, we have a right to it as well. When it doesn’t happen, many of us conclude that we are failures or that society has failed us.
The problem is a lack of perspective. Most of the people I know in business, for instance, have joked that they are fifteen- or twenty-year overnight successes. In other words, it took a long time and countless little setbacks for others to recognize that their overall efforts have resulted in considerable success. These individuals have not counted their setbacks as failures, but as obstacles in a long-time journey. Yet society implies these days that if your efforts are not immediately rewarded with recognition and praise, you have failed.
Why? Because we are products of the messages foisted upon us by others. Too many parents delude their children into thinking that they are entitled to success. Too many policy makers pass legislation mandating fairness (ie. a right to success) for everyone in every situation when this is impossible to achieve, let alone enforce. Too many in the media publicize the unrealistic success of anomalies like Mark Zuckerberg, without placing these people and situations in perspective.
Can we be smart decision makers without failure? Of course not! Ironically, many of those considered most successful at any point in history have been those who have experienced devastating failures and bounced back. The next time you hear of some overnight sensation, dig deeper. Chances are you’ll discover a string of setbacks overcome in the process of getting there.
The sooner one discovers and accepts that success in any realm is the result of calculated risk mixed with a generous dose of mistakes and setbacks, the sooner that person discovers the nature of success. Decide to succeed, but accept that failure is part of the formula.