Success vs. Failure – Which is the Better Teacher?

January 26, 2016 | By | Add a Comment

“After age thirty, we learn more from our failure than our success.”

How I hate the truth of this saying. I want to learn but I don’t want to fail. Sure, we learn from failure but, if we’re diligent, we also learn from success – and doing so is much more enjoyable.

In an article at BusinessInsider.com, author Rafe Sagarin goes against my experience and argues that we actually learn more from success than failure. Consider his argument…

“The problem with the focus on failure is that failure is a weak process when put up directly against its counterpart: success. Consider the differences between failure and success in the toughest, longest running, most innovative, and rapidly changing system of exchange we know of — the process of biological evolution itself. But failure isn’t the process driving all of this growth and change; it’s just an unfortunate by-product. In short, biological organisms don’t learn from failure. They die from it before they get a chance to pass on their genes.” Of course there is a flaw in this logic – some don’t die, they fail, course-correct and get stronger.

Success tends to reinforce existing beliefs and inflates the ego. We start believing that we are solely responsible for outcomes. If we let it, failure softens us, makes us more open and humble. If we integrate our failures we grow stronger and more successful.

Debriefing a failure is just as important as debriefing a success: what worked, what didn’t, etc.?
Success is a good teacher early in our lives; yet later we need to learn how to fail, as life will deliver more existential binds and loss that looks a lot like failure, but actually is loss and change.

It’s rare that we are able to identify and process a truly “useful failure”; an error in action or judgment that forced us to change our thinking or behavior. Success, on the other hand, reinforces our judgment and vindicates our performance, though we tend to take such positive, ego-boosting outcomes for granted.

The point is, we should not take success for granted. Failure can be whatever you want it to be, including a “valuable learning experience”. Put both to work for you, confident in the knowledge that your failures are as valuable to your long-term success and happiness, as your successes can be.

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About the Author (Author Profile)

Executive coach, top team facilitator, author and speaker. I work with individual leaders and their teams to help navigate personal and professional transitions and to increase leadership capacity and improve communication and relationship skills. I founded my coaching firm in 2001 following 12 years asa CEO. Check out more on me and my coaching process in my book "The Business of Wanting More: Why Some Executives Move from Success to Fulfillment and Others Don't"

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