Failure: a love story

015 - A moment of weakness

When I told my students that our final class would focus on the topic of failure, there were winces all around. But in the end, most of them told me that this unit was their favorite. “Next time, why don’t you start the class with this?” one student even asked.

The idea of spending a session on failure came to me after listening to an NPR piece about its prominent place in the lives of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. “This is, like, failure central. We are, like, connoisseurs of failure, experts in both avoiding it and living with it ongoing,” said Paul Graham, founder of the start-up funder Y Combinator.

The nine students in my “Living Strategically” seminar are members of UMass Amherst’s Commonwealth Honors College. They are talented, articulate, and thoughtful, with high aspirations and transcripts filled with As. All of them are preparing to apply for post-graduate fellowships. They have lots of experience with success, not so much with failure.

They reminded me of myself at their age, and I wanted to offer them something that would have been useful to me then: The idea that failure can be a fertile starting place. That it’s a natural part of life — temporary, not defining. It took me a long time to learn this. I’d like to think that my students are well on their way to learning it now.

Our jumping off point was journalist Rick Newman’s Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success, which I previously wrote about here. The book had resonated with me when I read it last year – Newman shares my curiosity about the underpinnings of resilience – and happily my students loved it, one describing it as the “punchline” of the semester. In particular, they responded to Newman’s personal story of climbing back from setbacks. The rebounder as role model:  It’s something we could use more of.

Perhaps more than anything, I wanted to drive home the notion that failure doesn’t have to be such a big deal. Like the Wizard of Oz – “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” — failure isn’t really what it claims to be. Behind the curtain is this little guy, madly ginning up the special effects to create a lot of noise. And because there’s nothing like humor to put things into perspective, I had students watch Laura Zigman’s “Failure is the New Success” video, as funny as it is true. Point made.

Finally, we read a piece that I’d serendipitously stumbled across at work the week before – New Yorker writer and surgeon (and Harvard School of Public Health professor) Atul Gawande’s  beautiful meditation on “Failure and Rescue,” delivered as a commencement address at Williams College. Gawande observes that good hospitals have lots of things go wrong – as many as their less successful peers. Research has shown that great hospitals “didn’t fail less. They rescued more.”  (This piece also won student accolades, with one saying that she’d sent it on to a number of friends.)

A major focus of the “Living Strategically” seminar is writing a personal story, and throughout the semester, we spent a lot of time talking about crafting a compelling narrative.  What makes something interesting? What makes it boring? In a fascinating Harvard Business Review piece, Herminia Ibarra and Kent Lineback reflect on why so many career changers are terrible storytellers. The answer: They rely too much on chronology, failing to craft stories that tap into sources of continuity and coherence. They fail to choose story forms that suit their tales of reinvention.

Stories are powerful. We shape our stories, but our stories then shape us. That has never been clearer to me than it’s been since I started Plan B Nation. Here is what I wish for my students, for all of us: That our success stories are vibrant and expansive enough to incorporate—and honor—our failures.

How to be resilient (in 9 not-so-easy steps)

“So your blog is about resilience?”

“Well, not exactly. I mean, it’s about what lies behind resilience – about the nuts and bolts of resilience.”

I had this conversation a number of times before launching Plan B Nation, my personal chronicle-cum-user’s guide to life after the Great Recession. Yes, I was interested in the notion of bouncing back, but I wanted to unpack the idea. How do we stay optimistic  in the face of repeated setbacks? How do we keep going when our best efforts fall short?

These questions lie at the heart of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success, a new book by journalist Rick Newman – which is why I raced to get my hands on a copy as soon as I heard about it.

Like my own, Newman’s exploration began with personal challenges – in his case, a divorce and custody battle, financial stress, and dislocation (both geographic and professional). “As I crested the age of forty, I was falling behind instead of getting ahead, with a set of options that seemed to be narrowing and a deepening disillusionment that wasn’t supposed to afflict people like me,” he writes in the book’s introduction.

Ultimately, Newman opted to widen his gaze, to bring his reporting skills to bear on the issue of failure. How is it that some people – Newman calls them rebounders – are able to emerge from setbacks even stronger than before? What are the skills they draw on? And how can the rest of cultivate these adaptive behaviors?

Delving into these questions, Newman profiles a number of thriving survivors ranging from Thomas Edison to military pilot Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs in Iraq – their highs as well as their lows – and concludes with a series of nine attributes he sees as common to rebounders.

1. They accept failure.

It’s not that rebounders like failure, but they manage to “fail productively,” framing failure as a learning opportunity.

2.   They compartmentalize emotions.

While their emotions may run strong, rebounders nonetheless adopt a pragmatic stance and learn to maintain emotional equanimity in the face of disappointments.

3. They have a bias toward action.   

Taking purposeful action – even if you aren’t sure where it’s taking you – can be a first step to moving forward. (Newman opposes action to rumination, which can easily lead to immobilizing worry.)

4. They change their minds sometimes.

They make the best decisions they can at the time based on the information they have. When that information changes, they’re able to adjust their goals and thinking.

5. They prepare for things to go wrong.

For all the talk of optimism being linked to success, the rebounders Newman talked to tended to have a more measured perspective. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” said one.

6. They’re comfortable with discomfort.

For rebounders, success equals fulfillment, not comfort, and they willingly accept significant hardships and inconveniences en route to their goals.

7. They’re willing to wait.

Rebounders are willing to work harder and wait longer than they expected. “Longcuts to success are more common than shortcuts,” Newman writes.

8. They have heroes.

Mentors and role models are often important sources of inspiration for rebounders.

9. They have more than passion.

Rebounders have sustained drive as well as passion.

Having personally field-tested many of these strategies, I can vouch for them. At the same time, let’s be clear: All adversity is not created equal. For all the talk about hardship making us stronger, research suggests that people who experience an undue number of stressful life events (definitely the case for many of us slogging through Plan B Nation) have a relatively high level of mental health problems, as Newman reports. In other words, some hardship is good, too much hardship is not. How much is the right amount? Researchers put the optimal number of adverse events at three.

In the same vein, all people are not created equal. For this reason, I would love to read more about resilience in the context of the so-called “Big Five” personality types identified by researchers as largely hardwired and enduring. It would make sense if those of us wired to be unusually sensitive to negative experiences have a harder time cultivating resilience than those of us who naturally trend to a positive outlook. Does research in fact bear this out? And if so, are there steps we can take to counteract or bolster our hardwired biases?  (For those interested in such things, personality types are explored in depth in Daniel Nettle’s highly readable Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are, which also includes a short version of the Newcastle Personality Assessor.)

Still, while resilience doubtless comes more easily to some of us than others, there are always steps we can take to maximize our own potential. For this, Newman offers a starting place – as well as excellent reminders.