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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What is failure? What is success?

I got into a fascinating dialogue with one of my Circle members the other day, which blossomed into a topic on our live coaching call yesterday, and I just can’t get it out of my head. 

She’d been musing with a friend over  “whether or not failure should be a factor in deciding whether or not to pursue a big project. How big a chance of success do you need to feel energized about what you’re doing? How much do you have to enjoy the task itself in order to keep moving forward when the chance of success is small? What do you do when the chance of success seems very low and you hit a snag that removes your enjoyment of the process?”

In turn it got me thinking about failure.

What is failure?

What is failure really, except one attempt that hasn’t worked?

And if we keep failing and failing and failing again, aren’t we that much closer to “succeeding?”

I’m reminded of Thomas Edison’s many light bulb creation attempts and how he saw each “failure” as information — he had discovered what didn’t work.

I’m also reminded of this excerpt of lines from the movie Contact, one of my favorites of all time:

Executive: “We must confess that your proposal seems less like science and more like science fiction.”

Ellie Arroway: “Science fiction. Well you’re right, it’s crazy. In fact, it’s even worse than that, nuts.”

[slams down her briefcase and marches up to the desk]

Ellie Arroway: “You wanna hear something really nutty? I heard of a couple guys who wanna build something called an ‘airplane’, you know, you get people to go in, and fly around like birds, it’s ridiculous, right? And what about breaking the sound barrier, or rockets to the moon, or atomic energy, or a mission to Mars? Science fiction, right? Look, all I’m asking, is for you to just have the tiniest bit of vision. You know, to just sit back for one minute and look at the big picture. To take a chance on something that just might end up being the most profoundly impactful moment for humanity, for the history… of history.”

All too often, success requires an incredible level of risk, vision, perseverance, and belief — and we have to find it within ourselves to generate those necessary ingredients.

If we define failure as not achieving the results we are pursuing, we can choose to try something new, rather than defining it as a personal failing, or even defining it as a failure at all. We can think of it as information.

We often are told that we have to define success on our own terms.

Perhaps we should also define failure on our own terms.

We each have to know, individually inside ourselves, when it is time to “call it” and walk away from an idea or a project or an attempt and when we need to keep forging ahead. (Seth Godin talks about this more in his book The Dip). My experience is that we’re usually closest to a breakthrough when our inner critics and our fears are screaming at us in the loudest possible voices, which is when we’re most likely to quit.

Those voices usually say something like, “You’ll never make it. You’ll never figure it out. You’ve failed, you’re a failure.”

And I think that if we define failure as a personal flaw or character deficit, we will be more likely to walk away from a project too soon in the process.

And isn’t it really about enjoying the process as well — whatever IT is? Light bulbs, writing, painting. Whatever it is for you.

What is success?

And what is success?

Is it when we get paid? Or paid a certain amount of money?

Is it when we get recognized?

Is it when people like it?

Did Joss Whedon (one of my writing heroes) only really succeed when The Avengers was so financially successful? Or had he succeeded far earlier than that?

Is it something we only know when we get there?

And then what? Isn’t there more after that anyway? It’s not usually like it is in the movies, where we reach a “final” climactic success and the credits roll, right? Life goes on.

Just like it does after a “failure.”

Make your own definitions

When I took a class with Corey Mandell, he talked about defining our successes based on something that we actually have the ability to control, like finishing our projects, writing or working prolifically, picking out skills we want to develop further and strengthen for ourselves, honing our craft, and building a solid writing habit.

When we define successes and failures on extrinsic variables we can’t control, well, as Corey said, “Welcome to hell.”

Your Turn

So how have you defined success and failure so far? Might you adjust your definitions to bring them within your own control? What would that be like for you?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments

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What about doing things just for the joy of it?

Last week I wrote about protecting ourselves from our dreams.

I want to continue the conversation around the notion of doing things just for the joy of them, even if they don’t “happen” the way we want them too.

This is a tough one for me.

I love to dream big and see the possibilities that can be available to us — to imagine things reaching the outcome I want them to have.

And yet, like we talked about last week, what if we don’t get those outcomes? Does that mean we’ve failed? Or that our dreams weren’t worth pursuing?

I don’t think so, though I have to admit I would be disappointed if I never sold a book or a screenplay.


But, but, but.

What if I loved writing so much that I wanted to do it anyway, no matter what the outcome?

We’re always told that we should focus on the things we love so much that we’d do them for free, right?

I think there is powerful truth in that, but I have to confess that I’ve never really believed it up until now. And even today, on a day when writing has been much harder for me than I would like, I can tell you that I love it. And I would do it for free, without guarantee of outcome or success.

That’s a huge step for me. To acknowledge the joy of doing something so much that it doesn’t matter what happens with it.

Doesn’t mean I won’t try.

Doesn’t mean I won’t feel disappointed if it doesn’t “happen” the way I imagine.

But it does mean that I intend to enjoy it every step of the way.

Your Turn

What about you? What do love to do just for the joy of it? What have you been secretly longing to try that you suspect you might find that kind of joy in?

Tell us about it.




Coming Attractions

~> March 19th, 2012. The next session of my Writer’s Circle starts. Get my Free Writing Tips series too, and receive a coupon for a savings on your first 4 week session. Sign up here.

~> March 29th, 2012. My next Life Purpose Breakthrough Group. Details coming soon! One spot is already taken so if you’d like to nab one, email us now.


What I'm Up To

~> Ongoing. Writing in the ProSeries class at ScreenwritingU, which was recently named the #1 screenwriting class by InkTip. They’re offering a free class called, “21 Steps to a Professional Rewrite” this Sunday if you’re interested. Details. It’s a great class that provides a ton of value for screenwriters and may be helpful for novelists too.

~> Daily and especially Fridays. Sacred writing time. The Do Not Disturb sign is up.

~> Still haven’t watched Super Eight but squeezed in Cowboys & Aliens over the weekend. It wasn’t QUITE what I was hoping for but still fun to see.