During one of my piano lessons at The Juilliard School, my teacher told me I “played like a mouse” and asked me if I had considered going to law school. At my taekwon-do black belt test, I failed to pass the first time round because I didn’t break the boards (and it took another 12 months until I did). At business school, surrounded by “quant jocks” while I didn’t even know how to use Excel, I finished the first semester at the far left of the grade curve and the very bottom of my class, in real danger of being kicked out.
“Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible,” says Johannes Haushofer, a psychology and public affairs professor at Princeton. “I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days.”
To counter that impression, he made a brave demonstration of vulnerability and published (online!) his “CV of failures,” which includes degree programs he didn’t get into, research funding he didn’t receive and paper rejections from academic journals.
“When kids think Einstein is a genius who is different from everyone else, then they believe they will never measure up,” said lead researcher Xiaodong Lin-Siegler, PhD. “Many students don’t realize that all successes require a long journey with many failures along the way.”
In our hurry to prove worthiness based on our achievements, it’s time we all realized that.