August 10, 2023

TPL Insights #183 – Dr. Becca North’s Landmark Research on How the Whole Truth of Failure Can Transform Our Lives

By Rob Andrews

By Rob Andrews with italicized content from the book Your Hidden Superpowers by Becca North, Ph.D.

Dr. Becca North is a researcher, author, and professor who teaches the opening course at The University of Texas at Austin’s MA in Human Dimensions of Organizations program, in which I will be a student over the next 17 months. Wanting to prepare, I purchased North’s book with the intention of skimming it to get a feel for what her course might be like. After reading a dozen pages or so, I couldn’t put it down. North’s research delves into the way most of us feel about failure and how changing our attitudes and views can literally and profoundly improve our personal and professional lives. It will have a lasting effect on me, and I hope it will for you.

North’s book, which integrates science and storytelling, suggests that the way we view failure affects how we live, lead, decide, innovate, connect, and dare. In short, how we perceive failure matters a great deal. She asks: What is your relationship with failure? If it were a person, how would you describe your feelings toward it? How would you feel if it asked to stop by your house? If you saw it in the aisle at the grocery store, what would you do? We tend to think of failure as bad, completely bad, like an enemy. We tend to want it out of our lives, never to show its face. At the very least, we want it around as little as possible.

This way of thinking makes a lot of sense given that failure has a readily apparent dark side. It’s painful and embarrassing. Oftentimes it’s humiliating. And it’s scary. Failure can be threatening not only because of its immediate consequences but also because we fear it might signal even worse consequences in the future. If you perform poorly on a test in college, you might worry it means you will be a failure in the real world. If you get fired from a job or passed over for a promotion, you might be afraid that you will never achieve your professional goals in the future. The view that failure is inherently bad does reflect part of the truth of failure. But it also hides part of the truth – a very big and important part. Failure has a powerful light side, but it gets overlooked, obscured, and oftentimes completely hidden.  

Failure, in fact, does have a very potent bright side. There is a definite positive relationship between short-term failure and long-term success. Once we reframe our thinking, we can see that the pathway to success is literally failure. There are real benefits to failure and recognizing them as such will allow us to live, lead, decide, innovate, connect, and dare more often and more effectively. As mentioned above, Becca does not deny failure’s dark side. However, she stresses: Counterintuitively, acknowledging failure’s downside can help us extract failure’s benefits, whereas refusing to acknowledge it blocks us from the benefits.

Feeling pain after a failure is universal; even people we might assume would not hurt after failure, like those who report not caring about what others think of them or extremely accomplished public figures, all feel pain when they fail. But failure creates tinder – raw material for something better- but if we don’t convert the tinder, it becomes waste. The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that if a person “harvests his losses, then he turns the dust of his shoes into gems.”

Dozens of examples are cited in the book. For example, in 2010, Becca interviewed Dr. James McPherson, Professor Emeritus of American History at Princeton and an expert on the Civil War. Her objectives included discovering the role failure played in Abraham Lincoln’s ultimate success.

Although Lincoln’s many failures are well documented, most of us cannot imagine the hurt he experienced during and immediately after each one. Imagine being Lincoln’s close friend in 1859. Over ten-plus years, he ran for major political office three times and lost every time. Imagine now that your good friend Abraham tells you he is running for president. When I asked Dr. McPherson what he thought Lincoln considered his biggest and most painful failure, he said losing the election for U.S. Senate in 1854. Lincoln ultimately withdrew late in the race, with a plurality of votes that fell just short of a majority, to redirect his support to anti-slavery candidate Lyman Trumbull. Lincoln put his passion for seeing slavery abolished above his personal ambition, but that did not make it hurt any less.

Dr. McPherson said: Still, Lincoln’s failure provided opportunities. Even though he lost in ’54, and I think the loss hurt, I think it was the steppingstone toward bigger things for him. In the short term, the loss enabled him to build a stronger following. By giving up his own ambition in 1854, he created a feeling among Illinois Republicans that they owed him. He had put his own personal ambitions aside to ensure the success of a political party not yet in existence. When 1858 rolled around, Lincoln was the Illinois Republican party’s choice for senator. They backed him unanimously, but he still lost!

The campaigning he did that year, though, created the biggest opportunity of all, to prove himself on the national stage. Lincoln’s performance in debates against his senate opponent, Stephen Douglas, widely regarded as the most prominent politician in the country, and his subsequent performance during a lecture on politics at Cooper Union, a New York College at the invitation of a Republican club in New York City, changed the way Lincoln saw himself. The Cooper Union speech and his subsequent New England speaking tour were widely praised and made him widely known and admired in the northeast for the first time. Had you been a close friend of Lincoln’s in those days, you would have witnessed firsthand how Lincoln’s string of devastating individual failures set him up for his ultimate successes.

Becca’s cutting-edge research addresses a new line of questioning about responding to failure: How can we grow from failure? In other words, how can we respond (rather than react) to failure in a way that allows us not just to bounce back from it, but to grow? The answer is surprising, counterintuitive, and conventional wisdom denying; it shatters current assumptions we have about responding well to failure. The hidden magic revealed in Becca’s masterpiece envisions how changing the way we think about failure can change the way we lead our lives. It also imagines the impact that such a shift in how we live would have on us as individuals and as a society.

I am wildly excited to be a student of Becca’s, in the most innovative human capital related graduate program in the U.S., as I believe it will help put a fine point on our research and architecture around building peak performance cultures. I look forward to sharing with our audience what I discover along the way. I hope this short essay on Becca North’s groundbreaking research makes a difference in your life. Give us a call, and let’s talk about how we can be thought partners in elevating your talent, leadership, culture, and performance.

Warmest Regards,

Rob