Are success and failure really opposites?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post called “What is failure? What is success?

As I went to publish the post, I searched for a graphic to go with it, and I was so struck by how the graphics I found showed success and failure as opposites — two things moving away from each other.

Here you can see what I mean:

failure & success

Or this version:

Success and Failure Road Sign with dramatic clouds and sky.

Pretty much the same thing, right?

Here’s another one:

Success And Failure Photo

The problem I have with these graphics is that they defy logic. I guess we’re supposed to assume that at a key crossroads in our lives we have to make the “right” decision in order to succeed. If we don’t make that “right” decision, we’ll fail. And sure, I suppose there are some truly right and wrong answers, but particularly when it comes to something like “success”, which can have so many different relative definitions, how can there always be one clear answer?

As I discussed in my earlier article, Thomas Edison made endless numbers of attempts to perfect his lightbulb. Were those attempts “failures”? Sure, I suppose in some sense they are. But didn’t those “failures” ultimately lead him to success?

And doesn’t make these graphics inherently flawed?

When you think about it, showing success and failure existing in opposite spaces is a perfect example of a “fixed mindset” versus a “growth” mindset, like Carol Dweck writes about in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.*

Dweck says that a fixed mindset is a belief that “your qualities are fixed in stone” and creates “an urgency to prove yourself over and over.” This kind of thinking leads us to believe that we only have a certain amount of talent, intelligence or character and there’s nothing we can do to improve it — save possibly making the “right” choices.

This ties right into this black or white thinking of success and failure existing only as opposites.

The growth mindset on the other hand, is “the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.” This means that “a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.”

If we adopt more of a growth mindset about success, it seems to me, we want a graphic that looks something more like this:


Or even like this:


Your turn

What do you think?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments on the blog.



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  1. I find your graphics a significant improvement to those stock photos :)

  2. Hi Jenna,

    Thanks for such a refreshing post.
    It’s way past time to move away from “either or” thinking to a both and…” approach.
    As your graphics indicate, there are many different options. It simply depends on what the eureka point is. This could be a known outcome (1st graphic) or something that evolves as a result of gleaning insights and wisdom from previous choices and resultant outcomes (2nd graphic).

    • You’re welcome, Antoinette. (How great to hear from you!) You’re right, there are so many different options. And I like your interpretation of my graphics. Excellent!

  3. Perhaps failure is the closer of two destinations on the same road. Don’t think of it as quitting but as a course correction.

  4. This article is quite pertinent to me, coming back this summer from a healing year off, following severe burnout. It’s easy to call what I did for the last few years “failure.” (Or “utter failure,” lol!) I tried this and that — this writing coach and that one, this editor and that one, this program and that program, but never released my book. (Though one version was all formatted and ready to go at one point, except it felt wrong to release it.)

    Although I am now slowly rewriting it with a surprisingly different voice, it is still easy to walk in the office first thing and feel past “failures” looming there like ghosts. It’s still easy to derail into, “I’ll never finish this,” based only on the mind’s collection of past evidence. (Though I think my personal second illustration would have at least three times as many more branches and X marks, lol.)

    Each time I get caught, I have to stop a moment and find that place in my heart which KNOWS I am here to write a few books. Then I listen to the book and remember we are friends, it’s not here to kill me (lol), I’m quite fond of it, and I am here to parent it out into the world. Slowly, it has become easier to get back on track. Slowly but surely.

    This is a great topic for discussion. I find success and failure are merely labels from the logical mind, which is always churning and keeping itself busy by categorizing and comparing and labeling. The trouble is that it’s so easy to listen to the mind’s outputs and believe its unfounded opinions. I find the heart or higher wisdom, however, knows that life is a journey and a process, not a mere label. xo

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