Inspiration Through Failure

Finally, we may need to readjust our expectations regarding success and learning. Our ideas of the path to success are severely skewed by how the people themselves are presented. Studies showed that digging into the failures and detours of famously successful people greatly increased the resiliency of students. In a sense, success is a game of numbers, where you must attempt a certain amount of times (with corresponding failures) to even put yourself in a position to succeed.

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But wait, there’s one more point on the concept of failure and how it can actually help you to your learning goals.

A study by Professor Xiaodong Lin-Siegler at Teachers College discovered that learning about the failures and struggles of important historical figures and scientific trailblazers is an important, often overlooked, aspect of student success. It provides a more accurate perspective and imparts a sense of realistic expectations and the presence of failure in everyone’s life story.

Often, textbooks and learning resources only mention the successes of the people they profile, leading the readers and viewers to believe that these men and women were insurpassably great. This is actually damaging because it sets our expectations to unrealistic heights. If you only read about success, then how should you deal with failure? If it seems like everyone who is successful has never hit a significant roadblock, what does it say about you once you hit one? It’s not part of the narrative, which means you are not on the path to your goals.

Most people, even people who accomplish great things, don’t begin their paths through life with the belief that they’ll change the world with their discoveries, inventions, and tactics. Most people, even great people, are just trying to get through the day – whether they have grand plans or not. Each moment, even moments spent planning and working toward the future, must be lived in a human way. When people reach greatness, it’s always with a string of struggles and failures they’ve overcome and surpassed strewn behind them. The greater the success often represents the greater the number of failures. But our books and videos, when they fail to demonstrate this, often give the opposite impression.

“When kids just think Einstein is a genius, then they believe they can never measure up to him,” Lin-Siegler said. “Many kids don’t know that all successes require a long journey with many failures along the way.”

In Lin-Sieglar’s study, groups of students were told to read different accounts of famous scientists’ lives. One group read traditional textbook descriptions of their accomplishments. Another group read stories about their personal and intellectual struggles, including Einstein’s need to flee from Nazi Germany and Curie’s need to persist through dozens of failed experiments before discovering anything worthwhile.

The group of students who read about the struggles these geniuses faced and overcame were much more likely to believe that they were just people like themselves, while those students who read the traditional description focusing on the scientists’ accomplishments attributed their success to unique, innate talent that they couldn’t hope to replicate themselves.

The students who understood that successful scientists – geniuses – were just people like them who kept working and trying through their failures and struggles had better grades at the end of the term. By learning about the struggles and failures of great people, these students learned that their own struggles and failures could be stepping stones on the way to phenomenal success.

By contrast, students who didn’t learn about the failures and struggles of successful people were inclined to believe that their struggles indicated their own stupidity; they believed that because they weren’t as successful as their heroes immediately, that they never would be, as it never occurred to them that great people also struggled and failed on their pathway to success.

The important lesson here is that everyone is human and everyone fails. Even incredibly talented people who accomplish great things fail. The most successful people are the ones who’ve failed the most times, and the most often – not the ones who are the smartest or most innately intelligent. The only difference between them and the people who don’t make it are that they kept trying and working even when times were tough.

If you see life as a numbers game, then the value of embracing failure becomes instantly clear. For instance, to succeed five times, perhaps there must be one hundred attempts. Fifty will fail on the first tier, twenty-five more will fail on the second tier, ten more will fail on the third tier, five more will fail on the fourth tier, and five more will fail right before the finish line. Failure is a statistical inevitability.

You may not want to be a trailblazer, a great scientist, or an insanely successful businessman. You might just want to learn a new hobby or do a little better at work. But whatever your goal, it’s vital to remember that failure isn’t an indication that you aren’t smart enough or skilled enough to succeed. It just means you have to keep trying, like all the successful people before you have done.

If you must engage in comparisons, don’t compare yourself to people who are held up as archetypes in textbooks. Only compare yourself to the past version of yourself, as that is the only measure that matters.

Show notes and/or episode transcripts are available at

Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition. Visit to pick up your FREE human nature cheat sheet: 7 surprising psychology studies that will change the way you think.

For narration information visit Russell Newton at

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