Winning in life: Our success-driven culture is creating a fear of failure

While in high school I wanted to pursue a career in computer software / programming / engineering. I didn’t really know what the difference was but figured all of those jobs would make me lot of money. I would spend hours tinkering with computers and many more playing games like The Oregon Trail and Number Munchers.

So in twelfth grade I took a class on computer repair. It was a very hands-on class and the teacher regularly challenged us by creating hardware problems that we had to solve. “There’s nail polish on the hard drive! How’d that get in there? Cheeky, Mr. Sanders.”

When the quarter ended, I got back my report card and saw that I received a B. “I think you made a mistake Mr. Sanders. It says here I have a B.”

“Nope, B is correct.”

“I beg your pardon, but I’m a model minority. There’s something wrong with you! Not me. Now gimme my A.” I didn’t actually say that to Mr. Sanders.

When I was a child my parents told me that I could grow up to be anything I wanted: President of the United States, a doctor, a computer scientist, even Batman (presumably because Bruce Wayne was rich, and not because the Dark Knight broke bones to make the world a better place). As I got older, their gentle encouragement became increasingly direct, from “Bruce Wayne was an excellent computer programmer” to “Seriously James, be a programmer.”

There are many pressures to be successful both within the Asian American community and in mainstream society. Sometimes the definition of success is prescribed to us, like “get married,” “buy a house,” “compost once a week,” “have kids,” “win your fantasy football league.” Other times, society’s definition of success doesn’t always align with our own.

“James, mommy spilled nail polish on the hard drive again. Can you help fix it?”

“I already told you mom, I got a B in Mr. Sanders’ class.”

“B!? You’re no son of mine…”

By age 30 I had already committed the holy trinity of Asian fails: work at a non-profit, don’t have children, and told my parents they can’t live with me after they retire (but they can visit anytime they want). For Asian Americans children, it doesn’t get much worse than that.

I bring up these examples because they highlight one of the negative consequences of a success-driven culture: a fear of failure. Our society and culture has become so obsessed with success and winning that anything less seems terrifying. We treat everything like it’s a test. Even the simple act of asking someone how they are doing causes anxiety. “I’m good. No wait….I’m really busy. Actually, things are great. I mean….it’s alright. OMG. Um…can we start over?”

We shouldn’t view success and failure as two mutually exclusive outcomes. If I don’t get an A, then my parents don’t love me. If I didn’t get the job I applied for, then I’m stupid (and need to go back to school). If I don’t drink milk, then I’ll always be 5’6″. When this happens, we begin to feel bad about ourselves, lose confidence and self-esteem, want to quit, or sometimes futilely try and try again.

After undergrad I applied to five PHD programs and didn’t get accepted into any of them—although two did tease me with an interview. A few years later, I tried again and applied to four more. I still didn’t get in. That makes me 0/9. Nine consecutive fails! I felt awful–like the German soccer team had just beaten me 7-1.

But it was probably the best thing that ever happened in my life. Not getting accepted into a phd program gave me the opportunity to take a step back and reassess my goals, priorities, strengths and values. It put my life on a much different, but equally rewarding path. Here are a few other examples of failures I’ve committed.

In each of those examples I committed some sort of fail or mistake, and had a chance to learn from it. We need a new definition of success that doesn’t try to avoid failure, but embraces and learns from it. In order words, we need to become more successful at failing.

I’m not saying success isn’t important. Of course it is! Who wants to end up like Brazil. We should always strive to do our best, work hard and push ourselves to the limits. But at the same time, we shouldn’t treat failure like the end of the world—but rather a new opportunity to move forward.

If I had actually gotten into a phd program, I would probably still be locked up in some university basement without sunlight or nourishment, crunching data and numbers and reading research literature (although I would have made my parents very very proud). I would have never stumbled upon the non-profit sector and found a career that aligns with my passion and skills. Best fail ever! No wait…I’m really busy. Actually, things are great. I mean, it’s alright. Um…can we start over?


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