There is no doubt, J.K. Rowling is one of the most successful people on this planet. The 54-year-old novelist’s, the legendary Harry Potter fantasy series has sold more than 500 million copies throughout this world, spawning an entertainment franchise that turned her into a cultural-icon and the world’s very first billionaire author.
However, as Rowling tells us, none of that would have been possible without years of failure. Yes indeed, before Harry Potter, Rowling considered herself to have failed on an enormous scale. Back in 1993, her brief, tumultuous marriage to a television journalist fell completely apart only months after giving birth to her first daughter. Moving from Portugal to Edinburgh, Scotland, to be near her family, Rowling at the tender age of 28 found herself a single mother struggling on benefits from the state. “I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in Britain, without being homeless,” Rowling said in a 2008 commencement address at Harvard University.
“By every usual standard, I was the biggest failure that I knew.” However, failure proved a remarkable teacher. “Failure taught me some things about myself that I could have learned no other way,” says Rowling. “I discovered that I had a very strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected.”
Rowling’s hard-won wisdom is borne out by a growing body of some research that suggests, coming to grips with failure is essential to success. Let us keep in mind, without the existence of failure, success would have absolutely no meaning. However, the two terms aren’t merely opposites. The more that we learn about human striving, the more we can see that success and failure are inextricably bound together like brothers.
Scientists are well accustomed to the idea that progress or success could not exist without failure. The scientific method itself rests on repeated trial and error, over and over. An experiment that fails to prove a researcher’s hypothesis isn’t a failure, per se: it is simply more information to support further inquiries. Pioneering physicist Enrico Fermi, who was the genius to create the worlds’s first nuclear reactor, is said to have told students of his, that there are two possible outcomes for any experiment. “If the result confirms the hypothesis, then you have made a measurement,” says Fermi. “If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery.”
In his book Failure: (a very good read) Why Science Is So Successful, biologist Stuart Firestein argues that if scientists don’t encounter constant failure, they are doing something wrong. “One must try to fail because it is the only strategy to avoid repeating the obvious,” he writes. Too often you fail until you succeed, and then you are expected to stop failing.” For scientists, “failure is not a temporary condition, he writes. It is a constant and essential companion.
Simply acknowledging the ubiquity of failure appears my friends, to set students up for any future success. In this study of 2016, researchers at the Teachers College of Columbia University asked three different groups of high school students to read the biographies of three very famous scientists: Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and Michael Faraday. One of the groups read biographies that was focused totally on the accomplishments of the scientists. However, the other two groups read biographies that was focused primarily on their personal and their professional struggles, including foiled ambitions and some experiments that had failed. The students who read about the struggles that the scientists endured went on to perform better in science and math classes.
The message that even successful scientists have had experience that failed prior to their achievements may help students interpret their difficulties in science classes as normal occurrences rather than a reflection of their lack of talent or intelligence for science, our researchers wrote in their papers “Even Einstein Struggled,” that was published in the Journal of Education Psychology.
One of the study’s authors, cognitive-studies professor Xiaodong Lin-Siegler, went on to be the founding director of Columbia’s Education for Persistence and Innovation Center, dedicated to the study of failure. Lin-Siegler herself, had spoke about her own rocky road to acquire success. Lin-Siegler was rejected by three graduate schools, that included the Columbia Teachers College, inspiring her research. One of the center;s first major research projects will be to interview Nobel laureates about their personal experiences with failure. “Few studies exist on how failure can actually lead to success and how to educate our youth about the process,” the center says of the research. The goal is to help our students comprehend that failure is essential to future success.
There is now a larger movement afoot to break down the iron taboos that surrounds failure. In the summer of 2010, neuroscientist Melanie Stefan found her application for fellowship yet again rejected. However, that wasn’t surprising in itself. She estimated that most of the fellowships for which she was applying had only about a 15% acceptance rate. Nevertheless, it stung. Stefan found darkly humorous consolation in the fact that, the very same day her rejection came through, The Brazil’s World Cup team cut soccer phenomenon Ronaldinho. However, the more that she thought about it, Stefan realized that while Ronaldinho’s failures’ are visible for all the world to see and judge, most people’s are not.
“My CV does not reflect the bulk of my academic efforts-it does not mention the exams that I failed, my unsuccessful Ph.D. or fellowship applications, or the papers never accepted for publication,” Stefan wrote in the Journal Nature. “At conferences, I talk about the one project that worked, not about all the many that had failed.” Stefan, now lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, called on her academic colleagues to create a CV of their failures’, that includes every unsuccessful application, refused grant proposal and rejected paper. It will be most likely, utterly depressing at first sight. But it will remind you of the missing truths, some of the essential parts of what it means to be a scientist-and it just might inspire a colleague to shake off a rejection and begin again.
The idea inspired a flowering of failure CVs and resumes online, including a memorable one by Princeton University psychology professor Johannes Haushofer. “Most of what I try fails, However, these failures’ are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me,” he wrote. “As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures’ to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have some bad days.”
Ironically, the attention that Haushofer’s CV of failures’ has attracted, that includes mentions in the New York Times, and the Washington Post, is listed as its own meta failure. This darn CV of Failures, he writes, ” has received much more attention than my entire body of academic work.” Allowing yourself to fully feel failure can sincerely lay the groundwork for future success, suggests a 2017 study in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making. Researchers requested two groups of 98 individuals to find the cheapest price for a specific blender online, with a cash prize for finding that best deal.
Half of the participants were told to focus on their emotional response to losing. The other participants were told to simply think about the details of their failure if they did not win. But after the competition, all the participants were told that they lost and that the cheapest blender was $3.27 less the one that they found. The participants were then given the chance to try a different task, this time they would be shopping for a book. The group that focused on their emotional response to failing spent 25% more time on the new task than the group that did not, suggesting that they did indeed, tried harder.
“All the advice tells you not to dwell on your mistakes, and to not feel bad. However, we found the opposite,” wrote Selin Malkoc, who is an Ohio State University professor of MARKETING who co-authored the study. “If your thoughts are all about how to distance yourself from the failure, you’re not going to learn from your mistakes.”
RECOGNIZING THAT FAILURE EXISTS is one thing. However, knowing what to do with it, is without a doubt, equally important. Amy C. Edmondson, who is a professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, has identified three general categories of failure: intelligent failures’, complexity-related failures’ and preventable failures’. Preventable failures’ can occur when people and organizations will not do what they know they need to do in order to be successful. They may not follow proven methods or procedures, they may be inattentive to detail or just lack the necessary skills or the training to accomplish the task that is at hand. Most failures’ that is in this category can be considered bad, Edmondson wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 2011. However, in such cases, the causes can be readily identified and solutions developed.
On the other hand, complexity-related failures’ are very often unavoidable and are bred by the inherent uncertainty of work. Unpredictable needs, people and challenges can combine to confront individuals and organizations with problems that they’s never faced and can not be easily planned for in advance. Enduring complexity-related failures’ is inevitable, Edmondson writes, but they should be studied thoroughly after the fact. Their damage can also be mitigated with contingency plans that truly focus on safety and risk management. And not all complexity-related failures’ are necessarily unavoidable.
Avoiding consequential failures’ means rapidly identifying and correcting small failures’, Edmondson wrote. Most accidents in our hospitals result from a series of small failures’ that went under the radar and unfortunately lined up in just the wrong way. INTELLIGENT FAILURES are the most valuable kind of failure. They occur when branching out into completely unknown territory: creating a brand new product, or entering a new market, perhaps, which always require some risk-taking and some experimentation. At times setbacks are inevitable, however, if harnessed correctly, such failures’ can provide the much-needed insight that is necessary for ultimate success. Of course, that does not mean for anyone to take on projects blindly with no real thought to the consequences of failure. It means to always having a plan with the full awareness and acceptance that failure could be the outcome.
Unfortunately, Edmondson believes that the stigma around failure prevents organizations from reaping true benefits. When executives are asked which mistakes in their own organization were truly blame-worthy, most will say between 2% and 5%. But when asked what share of mistakes were actually treated as blameworthy, that answers usually ranged between 70% and 90%. The unfortunate consequence, Edmondson wrote, is that many failures’ go unreported and their valuable lessons are lost.
FAILURE IS STILL ALWAYS PAINFUL. And it doesn’t make success inevitable. The benefit of hindsight makes a story just like Rowling’s look like another step on the untouchable road to destiny. But in the moment, there was absolutely no indication that Rowling’s path of failure was indeed, leading anywhere. I had really no idea then how far the tunnel extended, she says. And for a long time, any light at the end of it was only a hope, rather than a reality.
However, Rowling also had feelings of liberation, having tasted failure in its full, unwanted measure, she no longer has any fear of it. Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential, she says. I was still very much alive, and I had a beautiful daughter whom I adored, and an old typewriter and a big idea, Rowling threw herself completely into her writing, stealing snatches of time to write the amazing story, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone at various Edinburgh cafes after walking her adorable daughter to sleep in her stroller. Ironically, Rowling’s outstanding breakthrough proved to be an epic missed opportunity for others. Her pitch famously had been unbelievably, rejected 12 times before publisher Scholastic Corp. said YES- and struck gold.
It is impossible to live without failing at something, Rowling concluded. Unless you are living so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all. In which case, you fail by default. I sincerely, hope that this article has enforced the fact up on your mind that failure is not the end, but only a new beginning with more experience, knowledge then you had before. Never give up, no matter what, use determination, persistence in all that you do, because deep down inside of you is a winner, a champion, and you can be successful.
May prosperity be always with you.
Humbly yours, Paul Earl.