personal growth

Written By: DiveThru Team

Reviewed By: Natalie Asayag MSW, LCSW


Better Understanding Failure and Success

PUBLISHED Mar 31st, 2021 & UPDATED ON Dec 9th, 2022

If you’ve watched Gilmore Girls, you’ll remember that Rory faced some harsh AF criticism during her internship that led to her dropping out of Yale. She took some time to grapple with her mistakes. But, ultimately, she came out of it as a hella successful journalist!

Success is something that’s universally encouraged and praised. Meanwhile, failure is viewed negatively (something to stay the heck away from!). But they aren’t the polar opposites that we’re used to thinking of them as. They actually have a very complex relationship. So, what lessons can we learn from Rory’s journey with failure and success?

What Constitutes Failure and Success?

Well, there is honestly no real definition for either. Google ‘failure,’ and you will get “the lack of success.” Google ‘success,’ and it will tell you it’s “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.” If you’re even more confused than you were when you started, that’s because your question wasn’t really answered!

You’ll end up falling down an endless rabbit hole of search results just explaining that YOU create that aim, or purpose. And that’s just a long-winded way of answering our initial question: you DECIDE if you’ve failed or succeeded. In fact, since 1936 (woah!), researchers have said that failure and success are subjective experiences. They are determined by both our own expectations of ourselves and society’s expectations of us.

In his 1936 paper, Psychology of Success and Failure, German-American psychologist Kurt Lewin uses the example of a person throwing a discus. On their first try, it lands 40 yards away and they celebrate. Their second attempt lands at 50 yards…and 65 after that. They feel very successful. But on their fourth attempt, they hit 50 again and feel like they’ve failed — even though they just felt the thrill of success a few moments prior! This perfectly shows the relationship between expectation and achievement.

Achievement Is Subjective to Expectation

Whether you’ve placed fifth in a competition — or dropped out of Yale — you might say you’ve experienced failure. And we say “might” because someone else may not perceive that same experience as failure. (Tricky, right?!) So why does that annoying little voice in our heads constantly tell us that we should DO better…BE better? Because we let it!

Rory was so used to being perfect that, when she didn’t succeed in the eyes of a big-time journalist, she saw no option other than to give up. She had put value into what that person thought about her — rather than what she thought about herself (and her personal definition of success). After time away from writing, and Yale, she realized just how much she wanted to be a journalist. So she kicked her ass in gear and made it happen! Her mindset shifted. She no longer focussed on what others deemed “successful,” and focussed on attaining a level of achievement that she defined for herself.

“Success has to do with our expectations of ourselves,” explains psychotherapist Dr. Courtney Tracy in a recent episode of the Truth Doctor Podcast. “Failure and success impact us significantly — and success and failure are also significantly impacted by us. Our expectations of ourselves play a major role in whether or not we let a specific outcome be a success, be a failure, or be a neutral experience.”

So if it’s all about perception then let’s change how we perceive, or define, success.

Defining Success

Success shouldn’t be about being THE BEST at something. Instead, success should be about achieving something that you’ve put your mind to. You may not have that 4.0 GPA that Lisa has, but you’ve raised your GPA an entire half-point in one year. Congrats baby! And you may not have made those cupcakes by hand for the bake sale, but you said you would bring cupcakes and here they are! Doesn’t matter that they’re store-bought!

“Perfection” is impossible to achieve, so try to stay away from unrealistic expectations of yourself. If you start small and work yourself up to your ultimate goal, you can learn and grow from your experience along the way. In the end, you’ll find yourself getting more satisfaction out of your efforts — and becoming more resilient — because your definition of success isn’t tied to one specific end goal. What’s that saying? “The adventure is in the journey, not the destination.”

“Success and failure don’t actually exist except for in the mind of whoever is making that judgement” explains Dr. Tracy. “You hold the power. You hold the power to define what success and failure means to you.”

5 Ways to Encourage Success  

Since success is subjective, your best bet is to fill your brain with ALL the good thoughts. Beating yourself up over something will just keep making you feel like a “failure” (even though you’re definitely not), so let’s evict that mindset and let a more encouraging one move in!

Here are some tricks to get you on the path to success:

Believe In Yourself. Build up your self-esteem and tell yourself you can do this. 

Stay Positive. Always think about the best possible outcome.

Set Goals. Envision yourself where you want to be, and play to your strengths.

Think Forward. Don’t dwell on past failures, but use them as a lesson.

Work Hard. Be willing to put in some elbow grease, because nothing good comes easy. 

Accepting Failure

Failure presents itself in many different ways. For Rory, her perceived failure caused her to doubt her abilities. She thought less of her skills and intelligence, and lost all confidence in herself. Immediately, her fear of failure overtook all logic, and a newly developed performance anxiety led to her quitting school. She felt helpless as her path to success (the one she had been following since she was three years old) disappeared. Much like the athlete with the discus, Rory unconsciously invalidated her previous successes because of one piece of — rare — negative feedback. When you can actively recognize this self-sabotage, you can take failure for what it really is: a lesson!

“People who succeed are not people who know that they’re going to win. Often, only one person truly wins in our own minds,” explains Dr. Tracy. “People who succeed are people that are willing to fail.”

5 Ways to Cope with the Fear of Failure

Learning from failure can be a lot easier said than done. What happens if you choke before you can even make another attempt because you’re too scared of failing again? Well, we have some resources for that!

If you’re feeling pressure to succeed, here are some tips that can help:

Breathe. Focusing your breathing helps take you out of instinct-mode and put you into a rational mind.

Keep your brain busy. Try whistling to bring your attention away from your worries. 

Rest and replenish. Like muscles, willpower can also be overworked and under-nourished. 

Focus on what you can control. Feeling in control is the literal antidote to helplessness.

Celebrate small victories. Whenever you hit a milestone, remember how far you’ve come.

Following these steps can help motivate you to try again, decrease the likelihood of another failure, and increase your chances of feeling successful! As Oprah Winfrey once said, “failure is another stepping stone to greatness.”


Read More: How to Have Difficult Conversations with Your Loved Ones, How to Make Sure Your New Year Goals Are Mindful Resolutions,