A professor from Princeton University had the idea of compiling instances of his failures in a neat resume and then posting it online. Instead of “educational background,” “professional experience,” “papers published” or “training attended,” the curious resume included “degree programs I did not get into,” “research funding I did not get” or “paper rejections from academic journals.” The article on psychology and public affairs professor Johannes Haushofer was published in the website of CNBC.com.
Projecting only success and never recognizing failures has damaging effects, according to Haushofer.
The effort is similar to what author JK Rowling did— published rejection letters she got, among which contained suggestions that she attend a writing course or go to a helpful book shop to know what it truly means to be a novelist. She, of course, is the author of the bestselling Harry Potter books.
We have been trained to succeed all our lives. Our parents made sure that we had all the tools to have a better life than they did. We were enrolled in good schools, told to determine as early as possible what field we wanted to pursue, and advised to work hard reaching for our goals. They were the first to reprimand us when we exhibited the slightest doubt in our own abilities. They told us anything we could dare imagine is possible. And so we persevered.
In general, these admonitions worked. Decades after, we find ourselves doing relatively well despite occasional snags at several points in our silly youth. Because we believe that the formula works, we adopt this same stance on our children. Set them up for success, let them believe there is nothing they cannot do. And then sing to the world about it: You’re made.
Perhaps the context today is different, made more challenging by the pervasive presence of social media. In the vastness of the internet, it is easy to feel small and inconsequential when you compare yourself to others. How many of our Facebook friends, for instance, appear to lead such exciting, happy, prosperous, successful lives?
But the successes are, to use a cliché, just the tip of the iceberg. The big mass that lies underwater is the painstaking work, the self-doubt, the lethargy, the temptation to quit—and yes, the instances when we did not quite get what we wanted.
Perhaps what we lacked then was the assurance that it was all right, and that success can be defined in so many ways. That we know this now should be good for the next generation. There is not but one path to success, or happiness, and that one person’s journey is not—should never be—identical to another’s.
It is easy to be the ideal person when everything is going our way. We get into the program we want, finish it with flying colors, and believe we are, to use yet another cliché, on top of the world.
But how shall we react when we encounter major setbacks along the way? Being told we fell short of the standard, that we were no good, and that we better find other areas worth pursuing?
How, too shall we deal with inherent impediments to our experience of life— poverty, sickness, personal circumstances and other factors beyond our control that prevent us from realizing our potential?
It’s so much easier to share with friends the joy of seeing everything going according to plan. That would not doubt garner plenty of likes and comments. On the other hand, we do not normally talk about the things we did not quite achieve, that time somebody told us we were no good or at least not good enough, that blunder we made, that friendship we bungled, or that time when we doubted whether we were really doing what we were born to do.
These things shape us as much as the happy times do. How we respond to them determines what we are made of. Do we blame other people, find an excuse, say the world is unfair, or do we introspect and think hard about what caused them and how we can avoid them again?
We all are bound to fail, sometime. The law of averages says we win some and we lose some. Real success is making something out of, and being changed for the better by, that failure.