The Upside of Failure

New research provides an argument for not succeeding. Coming up just short of a goal might actually prove more motivational in achieving a different goal than having been successful the first go-around.

It’s graduation season and the time when celebrities and public figures take to podiums across the country to deliver the time-honored commencement address.

From the witty, to the inspirational, to the most-watched, these speeches touch on some perennial themes, including the inevitability of failure.

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default,” author J.K. Rowling told the graduating class at Harvard University in 2008.

Failure for Rowling helped cement her path to creating and completing the immensely popular Harry Potter series, she told the audience. “Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.”

Whether it’s failing to get into the office in time to make an early morning meeting or failing at a work or personal project, everyone experiences defeat. But, as so many graduation speakers attest, it’s usually not as dire as it seems. In fact, it’s often a catalyst for a different kind of success.

A recent study from global graduate business school INSEAD found that almost achieving a goal may motivate people to seek out a different, unrelated goal.

To test the effects of failing, the researchers conducted several experiments, one of which involved handing out scratch-off lottery tickets to shoppers in a mall. Those who almost won were found to spend more money shopping afterwards than those participants who had not come close to winning and those who had clearly won. Similarly, among a group of university students, those who came close to winning a (rigged) game on their phones walked more swiftly toward the second-place prize of a chocolate bar than those who did not come close to winning.

“Our research suggests that at least in some cases, losing has positive power,” lead researcher Monica Wadhwa said in a release. “While we often think of motivation as being targeted to a specific reward or goal, these findings support the notion that motivation is like energy and reward is like direction—once this motivational energy is activated, it leads an individual to seek out a broad range of goals and rewards.”

Association executive Brandon Robinson made a similar point in an ASAE article [login required] lauding the benefits of failure (as well as three steps to try, fail, and succeed).

“There is nothing wrong with failure,” he wrote. “We can all be better association executives if we simply learn how to try, fail–or succeed–and, most importantly, learn something. We should embrace the learning experience failure can provide.”

Case in point: web entrepreneur Jia Jiang, who a couple of years ago performed a self-actualizing experiment in rejection in order to become more familiar with the feeling and overcome the fear of it. Throughout the process of setting himself up to be rejected 100 times (e.g., by asking a stranger to engage in a staring contest or to borrow $100), Jiang ultimately discovered not only what consistent failure feels like but how he could use it. The entrepreneur eventually turned his experiences with rejection into a book, a TED Talk, and a game.

“After my rejection journey, I made a breakthrough,” Jiang wrote in a blog post. “I realized that rejection isn’t something I should shy away from, but something I could use to my advantage.”

How has failure impacted your association career? Please share in the comments.

Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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