The Unhealthy Preoccupation With Success

Starting from complex bid writing in large organisations (some were successful, others not), I’ve always had an interest in how you can best learn from ‘failure’. You can hold post-mortems of projects and bids but these are often not as helpful as you may hope (see here).

It’s interesting to read how others handle this success/failure split. For example, the England football team did pretty well in the recent World Cup in Russia. Pippa Grange was the team psychologist and there’s an interesting article on her approach and views here, including: 

Grange has no fear of failure either. She has written: “I’d like to turn this unhealthy preoccupation with success on its head and put it on the record that I think failure is really useful. For without failure we cannot progress longer, higher or faster. It’s a funny paradox – our successes are achieved through trying, and trying most often ends in failure. Every day in our general lives and our sporting lives we will win some and lose some; it’s just part of the way life should be. It could be missing out on a promotion, being pipped at the line in a running race or bombing out in an exam – it doesn’t matter – the important lesson is to learn from our failures, reassess, rethink, move forward (sometimes in a different direction) and keep those dreams and goals alive.”

Good summary: reassess, rethink and move forward (sometimes in a different direction). I like the emphasis on doing things a bit differently next time not just rehashing what you’ve done and hope it’ll be better next time (the common default).

Failures can of course shock and scar and have the effect of encouraging you to avoid similar situations (fight or flight). This will get in the way of ‘reassess, rethink and move forward’, at least in a balanced manner. One interesting suggestion to overcome this is to use humour:

One way to know you’ve reached a healthy place is your sense of humor. It might take a few days, but eventually you’ll see some comedy in what happened. When friends tell stories of their mistakes it makes you laugh, right? Well when you can laugh at your own mistakes you know you’ve accepted it and no longer judge yourself on the basis of one single event. Reaching this kind of perspective is very important in avoiding future mistakes. Humor loosens up your psychology and prevents you from obsessing about the past. It’s easy to make new mistakes by spending too much energy protecting against the previous ones. Remember the saying “a man fears the tiger that bit him last, instead of the tiger that will bite him next”.

I can see that this might work although I’ve never tried it myself. The article also gives variety of tips on how you can learn from mistakes.

Finally, for perspective, here’s a radical counter-viewpoint:

Another common misconception: you need to learn from your mistakes. What do you really learn from mistakes? You might learn what not to do again, but how valuable is that? You still don’t know what you should do next.

Contrast that with learning from your successes. Success gives you real ammunition. When something succeeds, you know what worked – and you can do it again. And the next time, you’ll probably do it even better.


Success is the experience that actually counts.

That shouldn’t be a surprise: it’s exactly how nature works. Evolution doesn’t linger on past failures, it’s always building upon what worked. So should you.

The only comment I’d add is that sometimes it’s hard to learn from successes, just as it is from failures. Sometimes you can be successful simply through luck but even then I guess you can always argue that you can make your own luck (see here)!

For context and motivation on this topic, please see my previous post.

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