Failure Is an Option ... but Losing without Learning Isn't

By Zak, Dan | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, November 4, 2008 | Go to article overview

Failure Is an Option ... but Losing without Learning Isn't


Zak, Dan, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


WASHINGTON -- Sometime late tonight, many Americans will feel like losers. Some will have worked months, maybe years, to elect someone who is staring at defeat. Some will have invested a heaping helping of hope into John McCain or Barack Obama, only to face four years under the opponent. There will be tears, denial, anger.

As this epic season barrels to a resolution, there is much at stake besides ideology and leadership. Namely: winning and losing. Success will send one side into shared ecstasy. Failure will deaden the other side with lonely grief. It will hurt.

"I would argue there's no starker dichotomy in American culture than in the idea of success and failure," says Scott Sandage, author of "Born Losers: A History of Failure in America."

The sting of failure ripples through all aspects of life; yet, we're quick to write it off, or deflect fault, or deploy banalities to soften the blow.

"There seems to be no way in American public life to talk about failure without resorting to cliches," continues Sandage, who teaches history at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. "Like, 'You're not a failure unless you quit,' or 'Failure is a learning opportunity.' They're kind of true, but they presume failure is always shameful. They presume failure is excusable only in the context of a continued all-out quest for success."

Sandage's book covers failed capitalist ventures from the past 200 years, a period during which Americans have broadened "failure" from a word that describes an outcome (as in, "a failed business") to a word that describes an identity ("I am a failure").

And it's this redefining of failure that gives people trouble, says Edwin Locke, professor emeritus of leadership and motivation at the University of Maryland. Just because you fail doesn't make you a failure.

"Some people may generalize a loss to dissatisfaction with themselves," Locke says. "But that's hugely mistaken, because not reaching a goal is limited to that goal. It's not a condemnation of your life."

Locke has researched goal-setting theory, which says that specific, hard-to-achieve goals produce better performance. He has found through experiments that people who set higher goals accomplish more but are more likely to fail. People who are terrified of failure set their goals too low, so they "succeed" by substandard markers but fail in a broader sense. The trick is to unleash a healthy ambition, set specific goals, and remain resilient and adaptable in the face of failure, Locke says.

Sometimes hard work leads to failure, as Sandage writes in his book. It's an un-American reality, but Katie Fox-Boyd and Farah Ahmad know all about it. They worked hard to get John Kerry elected president in 2004. We know how that turned out.

Yet, there they were a couple of weeks ago on K Street, canvassing through Grassroots Campaigns, working full time to get Obama elected. What if their guy loses again?

"We say we're moving to France, but we don't have the money, and we love this country," says Fox-Boyd, 24.

"It was a distressing time after the last election, but people are now working harder because of it," says Ahmad, 23.

The drive to rebound is an indispensable part of recovering from a loss. It's part of a simple equation for living successfully, regardless of failures, says Frank Farley, a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia who studies motivation, leadership and the psychology of sports and politics. That equation: Self-knowledge plus motivation equal a successful life.

The trick is to be a constant student of your evolving strengths and weaknesses, and keep moving forward, whether or not you deserved to lose.

"If you lose in some venture, in any aspect of your life, learn from it," Farley says. "That's the motivation part. You learn about yourself, and you do something based on that. …

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