True Grit: Why Learning To Fail Is The Secret To Success

Mark Sagor


“Big shots are only little shots who keep shooting” Christopher Morley

Thomas Edison failed to invent the light bulb 6000 times before he finally figured out that he could make a filament for the electric light out of carbonized cotton thread. Edison is the presumed author of the phrase: “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.” While it’s an appealing thought how does it measure up to the results of psychological research?

Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania developed a deceptively simple 3 minute test to measure persistence. The test which includes 12 questions like “I finish whatever I begin” was remarkably accurate in predicting success. She gave the test to 1200 freshman cadets entering West Point and her test beat the military’s much more complex evaluation in its ability to predict which cadets would succeed in the West Point pressure cooker.

Dr. Duckworth’s supervisor at the time was Dr. Martin Seligman whose revolutionary research resulted in the classic text “Learned Optimism”. Seligman’s research demonstrated that optimists are more likely to persist in a task because they have a way of thinking that does not make failure “personal” (the failure doesn’t undermine their self-esteem), “permanent” (they believe they will eventually succeed), or “pervasive” (they do not feel like a “failure” in all areas just because of a setback in one).

So the next time you feel like giving up after a setback try the “Triple P” approach: that is, de-emphasize the Personal, Permanent and Pervasive in your explanation of why you did not succeed on any specific occasion.

For example, if you are a salesman who did not make a sale, you are more likely to persist in sales and improve your skills and performance if you don’t get bogged down by toxic explanations that erode your self-esteem like:

1.    “I stink at sales” (Personal). Better to think something like “The customer didn’t need it” or “I caught the customer at a bad time” or even “I wasn’t at my best”

2.    “I will always stink at sales” Better to think something like: “It takes 10 presentations to make one sale. That’s one down, nine to go.” Or even “I still have a lot to learn but I will get there.”

3.    “I stink at everything”. This is the most toxic explanation of them all. Don’t go there.

Of course, persistence sometimes needs to be balanced by a healthy dose of practicality. Some goals may not be attainable and as the esteemed philosopher Kenny Rogers famously said: “You got to know when to hold them and know when to fold them.” But either way you will be better off without explanations that undermine the “true grit” you need to face a failure without getting down on yourself.