Obsessed with “Success”: The Cost of Emphasizing Success at the Expense of Failure

Could failing be the key to success? Can we redefine our limited idea of “success”?

According to a new study by the American Psychological Association, children may perform better in school and feel more confident if told that failure is a normal part of learning. One researcher said that when students are “obsessed with success” their fear of failure keeps them from taking difficult steps necessary for mastering new material.  When students don’t have the confidence to explore, take risks, fail, and regroup in a healthy way, they aren’t preparing themselves for life’s more difficult and complex challenges.

Imagine how changing a students attitude could change not only their academic life, but personal and professional lives. When they don’t get the job on the first try, would they be more likely to  take it personally,  give up and look for an easier job that requires lower-level skills? When students don’t get into their college of choice are they more likely to dismiss that what they DO in college is more important than where they go to college? When students encounter challenges such as illness, death of a loved one or financial distress, should they let it consume them have the mental wherewithal to grow from it?

In the three experiments conducted for this study, students were divided into two groups and given difficult anagram problems to solve. One group was told that “learning is difficult and failure is common, but practice will help, just like learning how to ride a bicycle.” The other group wasn’t given encouragement, just asked how they solved the problem. In all three experiments, students who had their fear of failure lessened by a pep talk on failure did better than those without the discussion.

Research supervisor, Jean-Claude Croizet, PhD, believes this study shows more than students’ feelings toward success and failure. The experiments showed that educators and parents play an important role in academic success, and their role doesn’t start and end at getting the student academically prepared. Researchers believe educators and parents must define success by a student’s process, not their failure or success marked by test scores and grades. Students must have the confidence to succeed.

Coaching is an essential skill for parents, teachers, counselors, and professors which can help students envision their ability to handle something difficult and see how it can transform their perspective, their experience base, and their overall life ability to become more seasoned through obstacles.

How can you change your language in class or at home to make mistakes a welcome part of daily life? How can you show a setback as a learning opportunity? When you struggle  in class, or at home, can you talk to your students about how you will learn from it?   How can you model your ability to be resilient so that students in your life can cultivate this quality themselves? LifeBound trains and certifies parents, professors, teachers, and counselors in academic coaching skills, emphasizing embracing rigor and challenge as a way to develop personal strength, competence, and life skills for success in college, career and life.


“Reducing Academic Pressure May Help Children Succeed.” 12 March 2012. American Psychological Association. Accessed on 16 March 2012. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2012/03/academic-pressure.aspx

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