Pressure to succeed and avoid failure is all around us. From athletes who seek perfection in their physical form, to young professionals who deal with burnout while they strive for that next role — most of us try to avoid failure. In 2018, research found that 60 percent of young people have trouble coping with the pressure to succeed.
However, various studies have shown that failure is by no means synonymous with a lack of accomplishment. Indeed, researchers from Northwestern University have decreed failure to be “the essential prerequisite for success,” and a University of Arizona study says we must fail to learn and failing 15 percent of the time is the “sweet spot.”
“Striving to be perfect is likely complex,” explains Daniel Madigan, a professor of psychology at York St. John University. “There is little wrong with wanting to do well and have high standards. The problems arise when achieving those standards is tied to one's sense of self.”
The Fear of Failure
Failure isn’t, Madigan suggests, something to be fearful of. Instead, he encourages people to recognize that failing is an inevitable consequence of trying new things and is something everyone will encounter at one time or another.
“In terms of perfectionists, those that succeed tend to be the exception rather than the norm,” Madigan notes. “Failure can be devastating for some people — especially perfectionists — but without failure, it is very difficult to learn and improve.”
Trying to achieve things in the first place is important, and failing can actually provide value if a person is willing to see the lesson, says Paul Iske, founder of The Institute of Brilliant Failures.
However, the ability to appreciate the silver linings, and to see through the disappointment of failure, can be tricky. A combination of playing in sports teams from a young age, exams, and wanting to impress friends and peers — as well as a host of other academic and societal pressures — can embed in people a need to succeed to avoid letting themselves or other people down. This is, according to Michael Grugan, a lecturer in psychology at North Umbria University, a trait most easily observed in elite level sportspeople.
According to Grugan, there is a strong notion in sport that some types or forms of perfectionism are important for success. And, while he admits that aspects associated with perfectionism may, for some individuals give rise to organization, hard work and single-minded dedication — all of which could contribute to better athletic performance — he is keen to point out that there is a difference between perfectionism and striving for high standards.
“Those who are highly perfectionistic endorse standards that are unrealistic and rigid. They are not able to set goals that are optimally challenging and struggle to adjust targets when necessary,” says Grugan.
What’s more, someone with a deep-rooted need to succeed can conduct themselves in a manner that most people would deem unsporting, or even duplicitous, according to Madigan.
“There can be a lot of guilt and shame and negative emotions for perfectionists that fail,” Madigan says.
A New Approach to Failure
According to Iske, failure is a form of freedom. Once a person can accept failure, they are more open to situations or projects that are risky. “It is my experience that when this is people’s attitude towards failure, others are also more willing to accept it, and everyone can benefit,” says Iske.
For Iske, recognizing the value of failure has long intrigued him, and has, to an extent, helped to keep him both grounded and curious. Failure is everywhere and there is value in researching the concept. There are also lessons in the failures of others.
And within your own failure, Grugan suggests that it is equally — if not more — important to be able to recognize and assess one’s own shortcomings.
“People should understand that we live in a complex, dynamic world where failure is always a possibility. How much value you get from failure depends on the way you deal with it. Therefore, it is important to be prepared, accept a certain amount of risk and when it happens, try to get the most out of it, and avoid feeling ashamed or embarrassed,” Iske suggests.