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Nowadays, success is the key to a fulfilled life. Although people are not able to define exactly what kind of success they have in mind, they believe that achieving success is crucial and they want to forget about any failures, as soon as possible. However, it is a mistake to avoid failures, because they teach us to persevere in difficult situations and they teach us to overcome our weaknesses, says Dr. Konrad Bocian, lecturer at SWPS University.

Erin Motz, yoga teacher, who allows herself and her students to be imperfect, sent the following twitt: “Success is the accumulation of all your failures.” These words reflect what contemporary psychology says about the impact of your thinking, beliefs and behaviors on the probability of achieving success. You should start with getting used to failures, although it is not easy, because your brain is equipped with several clever mechanisms that help you to forget your failures very quickly.

Perfect alibi

The main goal of these mechanisms is to protect your self-esteem. Research conducted by Professor Bogdan Wojciszke and his team have shown that self-esteem depends on your agency, i.e. the degree of competency in fulfilling your daily responsibilities. Since any information about failure threatens your self-esteem, it is quickly neutralized. In 2009, social psychologist Janusz Czapiński asked a representative group of Poles to assess their previous year. Was it good or bad and what was the reason for this evaluation? Over 81 percent of participants reported that they owed the good year to themselves, while only 29 percent admitted responsibility for a bad year. The same year, Professor Wojciszke and his team conducted a study, which indicated that one’s own belief in the perceived injustice of the world is strongly correlated with success (e.g. a successfully pass driving test) or with failure (e.g. failure to pass the driving test). In other words, I did not get my driver’s license, because there is no justice in the world, people are dishonest and untrustworthy, not because I lacked competencies to pass the test. In psychology this phenomenon is called attributional egotism, which is a tendency to blame external factors for one’s failures (I didn’t have time to study for the exam) and attributing successes to internal factors (e.g. of course I passed, I am an excellent driver).

Another defense technique that is well known to everyone is self-sabotage. People often apply this technique without realizing it. In the face of uncertainty or a threat to your self-esteem, you sometimes engage in behaviors, which lower the chances of success and at the same time relive you of taking responsibility for the failure. Therefore, instead of getting ready for the challenge ahead you suddenly remember that the car needs washing, there are e-mails that need to answering, you must do the overdue house cleaning or a friend is in need of your help. Thanks to this trick, when the failure comes, you have a great alibi: it was not your fault.

There is one more thing that helps you, like nothing else, to stop thinking about yourself: your good old friend – the television set. Research conducted by Sophia Moskalenko and Steven Heine in 2003, explained without a doubt why people are so keen to watch television. In one of the experiments, participants were asked to complete an IQ-type test. Next, some of them were told that they scored above average (success), while the other ones were informed that they scored below average (failure). After the score announcement, the participants were left for six minutes in a room where the TV was on and the researchers recorded their behavior using a hidden camera. It turned out that the people convinced about their success watched television for 147 seconds on average, while those that experienced a failure looked at the screen for 242 seconds. According to the researchers, thinking about oneself is often unpleasant, because it shows discrepancies between the way you are and the way you would like to be and television allows you to focus your attention on something else or helps you to switch off thinking all together. It is a bit like taking pain killers, which are meant to bring you a fast and effective relief.


The belief in the perceived injustice of the world is strongly correlated with success and failure. In psychology this phenomenon is called attributional egotism, which is a tendency to blame external factors for one’s failures.

Passion for learning or need of acceptance

There is no guarantee that you will learn something from your failures, even if you spend some time think about them. To a large degree, it depends on your attitude, or to be precise, on your mindset. For over twenty years, psychologist Carol Dweck from Stanford University has been researching how mindset influences the ability to cope with failures and how it impacts behaviors in relationships. Her studies indicate that approximately 40 percent of population has a fixed mindset. These people think that the character, intellectual abilities and creativity are hereditary and cannot be changed. This means that factors such as success and avoiding failure at any cost constitute the basis of their self-esteem. Successes confirm that they are clever and talented, but failures make them feel devastated. Therefore, people with the fixed mindset spend their lives on proving to themselves that they possess good character, personality or intelligence. For them, almost every life situation, professional or personal, provides an opportunity to test themselves and to confirm their capabilities and almost always it ends with self-assessment: I won or I lost.

On the other hand, another 40 percent of the population has a growth mindset. For them, every challenge that exceeds their abilities is an opportunity to learn and every failure provides motivation to work harder and to develop further instead of a reason to assume that they lack intelligence. People with a growth mindset believe that everyone possesses basic abilities, albeit at various degrees, and everyone can develop these abilities further, through hard work and experience. It does not mean that they believe that everyone can do anything. The growth mindset is a conviction that everyone possesses a hidden potential, which can be revealed only by passion, training and hard work. Moreover, people with a growth mindset are not discouraged by failures. They see failures as learning opportunities. This approach to failure is not common in our culture.

Professor Dweck has shown that mindset develops very early in life. Children as young as four display a fixed or a growth mindset, which suggests that the way parents praise their children may play a role in the development of these attitudes. During one of her studies, Professor Dweck asked over 100 teenagers to complete an IQ-type test. After they finished, half of the participants were praised for their talents (you scored X points, you must be very intelligent) and the rest of the participants were praised for their hard work (you scored X points, you must have worked very hard). This simple manipulation influenced the mindset of the teenagers. The first group was not keen on undertaking another challenge, while 90 percent of students from the second group declared their readiness to participate in another test. When all of them failed in the second test, the teenagers from the first group (praised for their inherent abilities) stopped believing in their talents, while the children from the second group (praised for their hard work) understood the failure as a signal to work even harder.

Never give up!

People often say that one should not give up despite failures. It sounds like an empty phrase, but many years of research, conducted by Angela Lee Duckworth and her team, irrefutably have shown that the two traits of character which predict one’s probability to achieve one’s goals, include perseverance and self-control. You don’t have to possess both to overcome challenges in life, however professor Duckworth has proven that these characteristics are more important in achieving success than talent or skills. It turns out that the IQ score or high scores on tests are not the best predictors of someone's abilities to achieve goals, but perseverance and self-control are.

Professor Duckworth created a scale of perseverance, which she applied in her research involving hundreds of people of various ages, which allowed her to group the participants according to their level of perseverance and self-control. It transpired that it was the level of perseverance, rather than the level of IQ, which more accurately predicted whether someone would complete training at West Point Academy, get to the final round of the Spelling Bee and graduate from the best high-school or how fast they would quit serving in the Special Forces or quit a job. Every one of these studies showed that perseverance and hard work were more important than inherent talents in achieving success or experiencing a failure.

These findings are aligned with the results achieved by Professor Dweck in her studies on mindset. In fact, research shows that perseverance is linked with the growth mindset and an optimistic approach to understanding life events. Psychological researchers unequivocally indicates that failures are not inherently bad, however you must learn to accept them and treat them as motivation to work harder. Perseverance, self-control and the growth mindset, i.e. a belief the your character can constantly develop, are very helpful in this process, because no one, including yourself, can predict what you are capable of.


The article was first published in the Polish edition of "Newsweek Psychologia Extra 2/16”.
Magazine available here »

About the Author

258 konrad bocian

Konrad Bocian, Ph.D. - Konrad Bocian, Ph.D. - social psychologist from the Sopot Faculty of Psychology at SWPS University. Researcher, lecturer, science journalist and doctoral student at SWPS University’s Interdisciplinary Doctoral School. His research interests focus on the influence of egoism on moral judgements.