Why You Need To Fail

This article, from Peter Bregman, originally appeared on The Harvard Business Publishing site on 7/6/09. While it was originally written with business executives in mind, the information presented here is equally helpful to authors who are struggling with setbacks—who are, after all, businesspeople too.

"Peter, I’d like you to stay for a minute after class." Calvin teaches my favorite body conditioning class at the gym.

"What’d I do?" I asked him.

"It’s what you didn’t do."

"What didn’t I do?"


"You kept me after class for not failing?"

"This," he began to mimic my casual weight lifting style, using weights that were obviously too light, "is not going to get you anywhere. A muscle only grows if you work it till it fails. You need to use more challenging weights. You need to fail."

Calvin’s onto something.

Every time I ask a room of executives to list the top five moments their career took a leap forward — not just a step, but a leap — failure is always on the list. For some it was the loss of a job. For others it was a project gone bad. And for others still it was the failure of a larger system, like an economic downturn, that required them to step up.

Yet most of us spend a tremendous effort trying to avoid even the possibility of failure.

According to Dr. Carol Dweck, professor at Stanford University, we have a mindset problem. Dweck has done a tremendous amount of research to understand what makes someone give up in the face of adversity versus strive to overcome it.

It turns out the answer is deceptively simple. It’s all in your head.

If you believe that your talents are inborn or fixed, then you will try to avoid failure at all costs because failure is proof of your limitation. People with a fixed mindset like to solve the same problems over and over again. It reinforces their sense of competence.

Children with fixed mindsets would rather redo an easy jigsaw puzzle than try a harder one. Students with fixed mindsets would rather not learn new languages. CEOs with fixed mindsets will surround themselves with people who agree with them. They feel smart when they get it right.

But if you believe your talent grows with persistence and effort, then you seek failure as an opportunity to improve. People with a growth mindset feel smart when they’re learning, not when they’re flawless.

Read the rest of the article on The Harvard Business Publishing site.