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Success/Failure

Posted Nov 17 2008 9:11pm

I read a book this weekend, "The Art of Possibility", that really changed my view on some things.  A lot of it is connected to my previous post on the undersampling of failure.  One of the main themes of the book is how the whole viewpoint of success/failure is inappropiate in a lot of cases. 

The book illustrates how life is a process and how focusing on individual events as successes or failures is often unnecessary.  For example, let's say a musician releases a number of songs over the years, some top hits and some bombs.  These individual songs can be viewed as successes or failures, but these labels miss the whole point: the musician is growing and trying new things, and the various songs are just part of the process.  The top hits could not have come without the bombs, because it is this experimentation, this trial and error, that leads to new songs and outcomes.

This is where the media misses the boat.  The often paint the picture of successful people as walking down a golden path in life.  They do not point out the many missteps along the way.  And by doing this they designate failure as something to avoid, rather than a natural part of the growth process.  

For example, Pablo Picasso created more than 20,000 art objects in his lifetime.  What percentage of these creations were masterpieces?  Very few.  Yet these masterpieces would not have come about without his constant experimentation.  Wouldn't anyone produce a few gems if they made 20,000 pieces of art?

This reminds me of a research experiment I read about years ago (I've been unable to find the source).  Students signing up for an art class were divided into two sections.  One section had all semester long to produce one piece of art.  They were to be graded on this piece and it would be their only grade.  The other section was graded on quantity - how many pieces they produced.  At the end of the semester, the group who spent all semester on one piece were judged poorly, while the group that cranked out pieces actually produced better work. 

Again this shows that development is a process, and that success/failure labels are not always necessary.  Feedback is what is needed, not the stigma that comes with along with judgment. 

Further, stigmatizing success or failure often creates tension that restricts performance.  Everyone knows that "choking" is when someone tenses up when victory is near.  Yet one is less likely to choke if they focus on the process and not the outcome.

Failure and success are simply stops along the road of development and learning.  Viewing everything through this lense is not necessary and creates undue stress and pressure.

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