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The Lessons of Success

There’s a piece of received wisdom that says we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. When you fail, it says, you learn what not to do in the future, you learn about yourself and your reaction to stress, you learn who you can count on, you learn about problem solving and about which elements of your plan work. We learn a great deal from our failures, I don’t think anyone would deny that. When something goes wrong, one of the first questions that others ask us is “what did you learn”? It’s even in interviews fairly often.


However it seems to me that success is often underrated in what it can teach us. I was contemplating today whether I had learned more from my successes or from my failures, and immediately I knew that the “right” answer would be failures, but that it was also an untruthful answer. Where we learn depends on where our deficits in knowledge lie. I am an individual who discounts her talents and abilities, who is hard on herself, who is acutely aware of her shortcomings and nearly always striving to do better. These things can cripple me if I can’t learn to also see what works for me, how I contribute to the world, or what my role is in positive actions in the world. Success is far more likely to teach me these things than failure is. For others who are better capable of seeing their positive impact, paying attention to failure might be a better option.


It may seem as if all success does is bolster one’s ego and emotions, not teach lessons. I wholly disagree, and I’d like to point to a number of concrete reasons and things that one can learn from success. The first thing that you can learn is your own worth. Understanding your worth is very different from simply feeling good about yourself. When you look at a situation and understand that objectively you contributed to a success, you have a knowledge about yourself that is different from emotion, and it’s one that is important to have in order to cope with strong and difficult emotions.


In addition, you learn from success what works. It is hard to hit upon this simply through the trial and error of multiple failures. Personally I think it’s easy to find ways to fail, but much harder to find the right combination of ingenuity, planning, and confidence that brings you to success. Learning what that feels like, what a particular situation calls for, and what it looks like when it succeeds does so much to give you a basic roadmap for the future.


You also learn about yourself and your reaction to success, you learn whether you can be gracious and humble, you learn who supports you and encourages you and wants to hear about good things in your life, and you learn which people are willing to help you reach that success in the first place.


In my mind, the most important kind of success, and the one that you learn the most from, is the success that comes after a failure. Many people say that when you fail you learn how to get up and try again with new lessons and tools in hand. I agree. However what really teaches you the lesson that failure is not the end of the world, or that you can be flexible, or that you can learn and grow in a way that has positive consequences, is when you get back up, try again, and succeed after a failure. This teaches you that you can rebound, that you can survive, that you are smart and capable of growing, that you have learned what to change. The success after the failure is a necessary component of that learning process, because it illustrates what you’ve learned, it gives you the confidence necessary to keep trying, and it gives you hope.


Hope to me is the best lesson of success. You need success to keep going, and in my lines of work that can be daunting. When you forget hope, you burn out very quickly. When you have a success, you learn that change can happen. This gives hope. Hope that you will do better in the future, hope that you and your work are worth it, hope that things will be ok. It’s hard to explain learned hope, but when things go well, you learn that they might again in the future. Hope.


I’d like to change the wisdom. We learn from all of our experiences, and what we need to learn depends on what we struggle with today. If all you see are your failures, you are far more likely to learn from a success. Perhaps we could simply allow a variety of experiences to be important instead of focusing on one to the detriment of others.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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