The Secret to Success = The Opportunity to Fail

Last week, the New York Times published a tour de force article by journalist Paul Tough about the importance of being given the opportunity to fail in life.

Entitled What If the Secret to Success is Failure?, the article examines the work of a NYC private school president and the co-founder of the KIPP Network of Charter Schools to identify and instill the character traits in their students that will help predict future success.

An unusually robust thinker, Riverdale school head Dominic Randolph, got together with some of the great minds in ethics and positive psychology to identify a set of strengths that were, according to research done at the University of Pennsylvania, most likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement.

I couldn’t wait to see the list, and will share with you now…

  • Zest | Approaching life with excitement and energy; feeling alive and activated
  • Grit | Finishing what one starts; completing something despite obstacles; a combination of
persistence and resilience.
  • Self-control | Regulating what one feels and does; being self-disciplined
  • Social Intelligence | Being aware of motives and feelings of other people and oneself
  • Gratitude | Awareness of, and thankful for, the good things that happen
  • Optimism | Hopeful about the future
  • Curiosity | Taking an interest in experience for its own sake; finding things fascinating

According to the author, the research showed that “cultivating these strengths represented a reliable path to “the good life” – a life that was not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling”.

This article certainly resonated with me, especially the importance of being able to overcome negative experiences and allowing those experiences to strengthen you for the future.

Gen Y’s have been taken to task about being coddled by “helicopter parents” – parents who provide too much cushion for failing, thereby depriving their children of powerful lessons.

So, let me ask you…

Do you possess these strengths? Do you believe your failures have helped you grow? Ultimately, has the opportunity to fail helped you become a more successful person? I would love to hear from you!


About the Author: Allison Cheston is a New York City-based career advisor who works with mid-career executives and young adults to help them identify their unique value in the marketplace and explore alternative careers. Allison is the author of an upcoming book In the Driver’s Seat: Work-Life Navigation Skills for Young Adults, to help young adults from late high school through college develop strengths and interests and match them to internships, coursework and, ultimately, the right job.

Cheston blogs frequently on career issues for young adults at her own blog, In the Driver’s Seat as well as at Forbes. She also blogs for mid-career professionals at The Examiner. You can reach Allison on Twitter.

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  • Excellent post! I am so angry at the “Self-Esteem” movement in our schools which undermines our kids’ ability to learn from failure and GENUINE successes! 

  • There’s a certain broad truth to this, but I think there are two more crucial aspects to mention. 

    First,  you must be able to glean the appropriate lesson from failure.  For example, a high school kid might want to play pro baseball.  But he can’t even make the high school team.  Does he persevere?  Or does he discern that his actual strength and talent lies in writing software — i.e., abstract creativity?  He’s got to figure that out.  Second, we must pick the right things to fail at.  Because, eventually, something must become a success.  We cannot fail at everything we try and get where we want to go.  If we fail to hit 10 out of 10 targets, were those targets even worthwhile to aim at?    

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Eric. You’re right that you should persevere but also be realistic. The pro baseball example is an apt one, since many kids glamorize the lifestyle of a pro athlete and think they have the shot. If their parents encourage them unrealistically, where does that get them? Parents or other mentors should ideally be able to channel kids’ talents into realistic pursuits. But there has to be a sense of realism to that too, and sometimes parents (especially affluent ones) get stuck on that, overblowing their kids’ talents. And in doing that they do them a disservice for life.

  • Allison- great post! I have been obsessed with this article. It is similar to research I cited in a guest post last week for You Tern that showed that successful employees test high on assessments of perseverance (grit). I was raised by my grandmother who raised her 5 brothers and sisters in the Depression and am grateful for what she taught me about persistance and dealing with hard times. I am not sure where I would be today without her influence. 

    My issue is that I am grateful that KIPP is doing this at the middle school level, but I feel like we have a lost generation of today’s college students and recent grads who generally weren’t taught these things and are now facing the hardest job market in a century. Like the article says, it’s a problem for all, but there is also an even worse equity gap among social classes. The White House isn’t going to talk about this problem as part of their jobs bill because it’s soft and complex, but I believe it’s integral to the success of our collective economy. When I read articles like this, I feel so invigorated to “do something” about it, but other than private coaching, I haven’t found something that makes sense. 

    • Anonymous

      Hi Tracy, it’s so funny you say you’ve been obsessed with this article because so have I! I was so excited when the NYT Magazine came out with an expanded focus on this theme. Your story is really interesting and I will have a look at your post.

      What you say about the problem of new grads being unable to find jobs really resonates with me too. But what I see in my work with Community Training & Employment Resources, a non-profit focused on helping unemployed adults find work in NYC, is the least prepared group is comprised of those who never went to college and have all kinds of impediments to finding good jobs. The college grad population definitely has issues, but they are usually different. Let’s discuss further. Thanks so much.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Dara, I so agree with you that the most important thing is to encourage kids in the first place. And of course, as you say, the truth is that in private schools and affluent families, encouragement is usually not the problem–it’s too much praise or failing to point out the negative, which is not helpful in the long run. Working in low-income schools has given you a great window into the need for consistent encouragement which can be in short supply when parents are extremely taxed and less able to focus on their kids’ long-term development. Thanks for pointing out this contrast.