The Iceberg Illusion of Success: Don’t Be Fooled Because You Can’t See The Failures

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.

What my professional bio says is: “Renita is a Juilliard-trained concert pianist with a martial arts black belt and an MBA from a top-10 international business school.” Hmmm.
Just like the proverbial iceberg, below every enviable success that you see someone achieve, there is a much larger mass of failed attempts.
“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.

Doesn’t it feel good just reading that?! The thing is, in this competitive, noisy world of horn-tooting and transparent “humble bragging,” knowing that others had a rocky road to success can be reassuring — not in a schadenfreude kind of way, but because it gives us a reality check about what it takes to succeed.
In fact, recent research published by the American Psychological Association suggests that we’re more likely to be inspired to persist by others’ struggles than by their accomplishments. In the study, 400+ students from four New York City high schools were divided into three groups. The control group read a typical science textbook description about the accomplishments of great scientists Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Michael Faraday. The second group read about their personal struggles, including Einstein’s flight from Nazi Germany to avoid persecution as a Jew. The third group of students read about the scientists’ intellectual struggles, such as Curie’s persistence despite a string of failed experiments. Over a six-week grading period, the students who learned about the scientists’ intellectual or personal struggles significantly improved their science grades, while the control group not only didn’t see a grade increase, they had lower grades than before the study began.
“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.

*Thanks to Noa Kageyama for directing me to the research and Rich Litvin for his post on the visible success, invisible failure distinction.