I have a friend who is a lawyer. Let's call him Lewis. Lewis worked for seven years at his Boston firm—from 9a.m.until 1 in the morning or later. Often I would get texts from him at 3 or 4 in the morning when he tried to have a "social life." Usually, these texts would refer to what cereal he was eating alone since no restaurants were open at that hour: No need for milk if store closed. Totally possible to eat Raisin Bran with water.
All this sacrifice was going to be worth it, Lewis told me, because since he had put in all this time, he would one day make partner and live the life he had always dreamed of: earning all the money that he'd grown up without as a child and working at his own pace, which would allow him to get married and start a family. His fellow attorneys had all assured him that he had almost reached his professional goal; the announcement of his promotion would be a mere formality. Then one day he was called into the office and told that he was not only not making partner but that there was no point in keeping him on: There had been a change in opinion about his future there—goodbye.
He was destroyed. I tried to comfort him with my scrapbook of flameouts (my workout plan, my attempt to play guitar on stage, the time I didn't get the job and, worse, my friend got it) but nothing worked. Lewis needed hope—and facts. Both of which Heidi Grant Halvorson, psychologist and author of the astonishingly well-researched Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, turned out of have in abundance, because the truth is that certain successes—be they personal or professional—can only grow out of failure, if not multiple failures, as long we understand how to use these so-called setbacks.
The "What Went Wrong?" Success
Hundreds of psychological studies have been done on this kind of achievement, says Halvorson—and they all end up with the same findings: Much of success is dependent not on talent but on learning from your mistakes.
About half the people in the world believe that ability in any area—be it creative or social skill, math or knitting—is innate. You arrive on the earth with a skill; you do not learn it. When these people fail, they will often say, "I'm just not a born knitter," or "I'm not a natural math person." Inherent ability (or lack of it) is their explanation for success (or a lack of it).
The other half believe instead that someone might have a preference or propensity for something—say painting or speaking foreign languages—but that this ability can be improved through practice or training. When they bomb a task, they do not say, "I'm just not good at painting." Instead, they say, "Maybe I should have asked for help from an art teacher." Or, "Maybe I was too overcommitted to really pay attention to my artwork." Or, "Maybe I didn't try hard enough."
By thinking this way, they're evaluating not who they are but what they did. Take Lewis, who once he got over the shock of his future imploding, asked himself what went wrong. Did he put too many hours in, which may have resulted in sloppy work? (No.) Did he underestimate how important it was to socialize with his boss and to ask for support? (Yes.)
It's almost impossible to ask those questions while yelling at yourself, "I'm a failure," or "There's something wrong with me." But when you shift your thinking, you make it possible to see what you can control—your behavior, your planning, your reactions—and change those things. The troubleshooting skills that you gain in the process are what you need to reach your goals.
Next: The "dust yourself off" success