We might think of success and failure as two very different conditions. We typically seek to find success and avoid failure. Yet, they share several important characteristics that play common roles in determining life outcomes.
Consider that success and failure are both temporary conditions. Failure only has to last until the next attempt and opportunity to succeed. Meanwhile, no successful person is guaranteed to remain successful. If we fail to attend to what led to success or do what is necessary to stay successful, it will pass.
Further, how long success and failure will last is determined by learning. Failure can be overcome by reflecting, studying, and learning the lessons necessary to change the outcome. Success can be fleeting if we fail to continue to learn, adjust, and move forward.
Additionally, the factors and margins that produce either success or failure can be small. In baseball, a few inches can separate a home run from a long out. In life, attending to or ignoring even a few details can determine whether an effort will be a spectacular success or an epic failure. We do well to remember that success may have resulted from small margins and failure may have occurred due to getting just a few things wrong.
Importantly, success and failure are heavily influenced by internal factors. We may seek to blame timing, resources, and the actions of others for failure, and we may give ourselves primary credit for our successes. Yet, the factors that determine whether we succeed or fail are more often within us. Success and failure are heavily influenced by what we believe about ourselves, our commitment to learn, our willingness to persist, and our ability to maintain hope despite external factors.
Finally, the definitions of success and failure are heavily influenced by perceptions: our own and others’. Achieving what is a key goal for us may be seen by others as insignificant and trivial. And what we may see as routine and natural accomplishments may be viewed by others as spectacular achievements. What may be seen as success by others can seem hollow and meaningless to us.
So, what role can the shared characteristics of success and failure play in our work with students? Here are observations to consider and share:
- Failure does not have to be permanent. Success is not always assured. Where students are today is only the starting point for what comes next.
- Conditions may change and new challenges will emerge. Moving on from failure requires new learning, adjusting, and persisting. Staying successful requires similar commitment and actions.
- Whether students fail or succeed, they need to pay attention to the factors that played a role. Of course, failure is often a better teacher than success.
- When students set and achieve goals, they are successful, even if there is more work to do and even if others may discount the significance of what they have achieved.
- Success or failure in the short and long term will be determined more by what students believe about themselves and their potential than by external factors and forces. Of course, the life forces and factors they confront may be more daunting for some students than for others.
We want our students to be successful. However, failure can be a good teacher, particularly for students who usually experience success. Our challenge is to help students understand the characteristics and realities of success and failure and their role in determining which outcome they will experience.