FAQ- Frequently Asked Questions



What does The Success-Failure Project do?

The Project aims to create opportunities for conversation and reflection about the experience and meaning of success, failure, mistakes, rejection, and resilience. Finding good places for this kind of conversation can be hard, though these concepts play a big role in our lives, even if we aren’t explicitly focusing on them. The Success-Failure Project offers panel discussions, workshops, evening dialogues with faculty, and other events, and we’re open to your ideas. Feel free to email bsc@harvard.edu us to discuss possibilities. Our website has many materials, including video clips of faculty, students, staff, and alumni sharing their experiences with success, failure, rejection, and resilience.

Why is this even an issue? Don’t we all understand what we mean by “success” and “failure?”

 Actually, people vary in how they understand those terms, and it makes a big difference for how we work and live. We can get pretty stuck when have certain understandings. One reason is that, when we are focusing mostly on avoiding mistakes and failures, we aren’t focusing on what makes us curious and engaged. And, since mistakes are inevitable in work and life, especially when we’re doing something new, we can actually become less creative and innovative when we can’t tolerate the messiness--the not knowing-- that is usually part of learning. And sometimes what seems to be success at first can have downsides, too. For example, let’s say I want to know how to throw a Frisbee. I grab one for first time and manage to toss it successfully. Great! But I may not understand how I did it until I try another time and see what doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s important to define success as a learning process, not just as an outcome.

 How do I know if my definition of success or failure is getting in my way?

Here are some common signs that we are struggling with these ideas:

 Debilitating procrastination. It’s natural to postpone doing things we don’t enjoy, but, if we define success and failure narrowly, work can become a miserable chore that we understandably try to avoid. And it may only give satisfaction when and if it’s finished. When we’re desperate not to make mistakes, we can turn into severe procrastinators who worry about failure a lot, even to the point where we sacrifice academic and professional goals.

 Focusing on catastrophic outcomes. Bad outcomes are sometimes a reality, and it’s natural to be distracted by that possibility at times, but when we can’t stand to fail or make mistakes, we often focus on that--on the scary possible outcomes. This can take enormous amounts of attention and can sap energy for creative tasks.

 Severe self-criticism. If we see failure as inexcusable, there’s no room for errors--for being in a process of learning. Mistakes and failures leave us feeling deeply guilty or ashamed, and we may punish ourselves when they (inevitably) happen.

 Withholding our work and ideas from others. When we think people who matter a great deal to us have rigid views of success and failure, we naturally want them to see us only at our best. That can lead to refraining from opportunities to share our less-than-perfect work, whether in conversation or writing. We wait in hopes that we will eventually come up with something we can be proud of, something that impresses.

 Perfectionism. If we are perpetually disappointed in our performance, if we can’t bear to fail, or if we have to succeed at everything right away, this means we have unreasonable goals—we’re perfectionistic.

 Being crushed by setbacks. It’s only human to be disappointed, confused, or angry about a serious setback or failure. But with a definition of success that punishes failures and creates a feeling of shame, we become deeply wounded when we commit an error, and it can take a long time to recover. Resilience comes from a Latin word meaning to rebound, to spring back, as a branch bends and flexes. It’s hard to flex and rebound when our view of success and failure is rigid and unbending.

 Repeatedly starting over on a project. Sometimes, that’s the only thing to do. But, it can also be a sign of an all-or-nothing view of success and failure. In that case, we tend to think very categorically. A bad or uneven start means we’ve already failed, so we throw it out. Doing this frequently may mean we’ve defined success and failure so rigidly that we’ve created a barrier to work.

 So, you’re saying failure is good?

It’s neither automatically good nor bad, but it’s inevitable. When we’re learning or trying something new, we can assume it will happen. If we can allow ourselves to go ahead and have the emotions that may accompany it--sadness, disappointment or whatever--but also frame the failure as part of a learning process, we can reap huge benefits.

 What about my family’s and my friends’ definitions of success?

The main characters in our lives often play big roles in how we define success and failure. Sometimes they’re supportive of our efforts to re-examine these ideas, and, when they are, the relationship often deepens. However, this process can also make conversation challenging, and we may want to find others to talk with. The Bureau of Study Counsel staff welcomes this kind of exploration.

 Won’t I lose motivation if I’m not afraid of failing?

You may, at least at first. If fear of failing has been your main motivator, it might take awhile before you can find other ways to engage. But being afraid of failing is only one possible source of motivation, and you may find sources that better capture your curiosity and even bring joy. It may be helpful to talk with someone as you explore this. The Bureau of Study Counsel is one place where conversations like this are always welcome.