The Link Between Failure and Success

September 25, 2023
Danielle Kane

Danielle Kane

Jack Ma, co-founder of the Alibaba Group and among the 40 richest persons in the world, famously discussed his long history of failure. He failed key exams for high school and for college. When he did graduate from college, he was rejected from the 30 jobs he applied to, including KFC, where he was the only one of 24 applicants not to get an offer. History is filled with examples of people who failed many times before achieving the successes they became famous for, leading some of them to highlight the key role played by failure. Michael Jordan pointed out that he missed more than 9000 shots in his career and lost 300 games, concluding, “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” One reason for this is that success requires many attempts, many -- or most – of which are likely to miss the mark. If we’re unwilling to confront these misses, then we are also depriving ourselves of the chance to hit the target.

This unwillingness to accept any misses is perfectionism. Perfectionism can warp our view of reality so much that, according to Stephen Guise, we count as “failure” even partial successes when they don’t match exactly what we want. But if success comes from repeated efforts, perfectionism itself might be the biggest enemy of success, since it can lead us to give up. In fact, focusing on success and failure at all may be misguided. Echoing the wisdom of one of the most important works in world literature, the Bhagavad Gita, Guise recommends, “Care less about results. Care more about putting in the work.”

Another problem with our approach is that we don’t always define success in terms of what we really value. Research conducted in Australia found a gap between what young people valued most in life (namely their friends, family, health, and personal happiness) and what they focused their time and energy on: attaining money and status. I found a similar discrepancy in my research on Chinese young adults, with men being especially likely to say that what they valued most was strong interpersonal relationships but were most motivated by financial success and social recognition. Expending most of our efforts on goals that are not what we really value is unlikely to lead to happiness.

What do these examples suggest about how we approach our work? To start, you might:
  • Think about how you’re defining success. Do your goals align with what you value most? Are you focusing on success and failure so much that you’re making fewer attempts than you would if you just focused on what needs to be done?
  • Experiment with focusing on habits rather than outcomes – that is, less on “I’m going to get an A on my chemistry exam” and more about “I’m going to spend X amount of time each day reviewing my notes and working on problem sets.”

Notes on sources:

  • Michael Jordan’s quote originally appeared in a Nike ad; this is referred to in a Chicago Tribune article: Zorn, Eric. May 19, 1997. “Without Failure, Jordan Would Be False Idol.” Chicago Tribune.
  • Guise, Stephen. 2015. How to Be an Imperfectionist: The New Way to Self-Acceptance, Fearless Living, and Freedom from Perfectionism. Selective Entertainment LLC.
  • Mitchell, Stephen (Trans.) 2007. Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation. Harmony.
  • Research conducted in Australia… Humphrey, Ashley, Helen Forbes-Mewett, and Ana-Maria Bliuc. 2023. ‘I Just Want to be Happy’: An Exploration of the Aspirations, Values, and Psychological Wellbeing of Australian Young People. Emerging Adulthood 11(3) 572-580.

Danielle Kane: Danielle Kane is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology. Her work focuses on gender and the role of parents in the transition to adulthood, with a particular emphasis on China.


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