Henry Petroski is obsessed with failure. A professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University, Petroski has spent a lot of his career examining past engineering failures — usually the collapse of bridges — trying to determine why they occurred and what could be learned from the disasters. Even in his own memoir, Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer (Alfred A. Knopf), Petroski devotes many pages to the subject of setbacks. “A lot of the book explores how I came to think about failure so much as opposed to success,” he says.
Petroski isn’t alone in his fascination with failure. It’s human nature to be intrigued by — and let’s face it, sometimes revel in — the setbacks of others. Groucho Marx summed it up nicely when he said, “No one is completely unhappy at the failure of his best friend.” Not surprisingly, this inherent interest in failure has spawned a great deal of research into how people respond to setbacks; a topic especially salient today during an economic slowdown. What has been learned is that failure is extremely instructive, and that the attitude people adopt in response to it essentially determines whether they will be successful in the future. “We learn an awful lot from failure. Failures tell you what you should not do in the future,” says Petroski. “Successes, on the other hand, have very little to teach us.”
Take, for instance, a landmark study conducted by Salvatore Maddi, a psychology professor at the University of California, Irvine. In it, he followed 450 mid-level Illinois Bell Telephone executives to see how they handled the stresses — job losses, rapid changes, ambiguous work roles — that came as their industry was roiled by deregulation. “Two-thirds of our sample fell apart,” he says. “The other third not only survived, they actually thrived.” Probing to find what the people who flourished under these adverse conditions had in common, Maddi discovered that they shared similar backgrounds. “They described serious disruptive stresses early in life,” he says. “Maybe their father was a military officer and they had to move around a lot, or maybe there was a sickness among their parents or they lost a parent early.” People who had relatively stable, stress-free upbringings, on the other hand, tended to fare poorly under tough conditions.
Having a difficult childhood allowed people to develop a set of attitudes — what he calls hardiness — that helped them excel under adverse circumstances. At the core of those attitudes is both an acceptance that life is a series of changes and challenges, and
a refusal to adopt a victim’s mentality in response to failure. “You want to continue to struggle to influence outcomes going on around you, even when things get tough,” he says. “You want to continue to struggle and try, rather than sink into powerlessness and passivity.”
While less prevalent in people who have had placid childhoods, Maddi says that the attitudes needed to deal successfully with setbacks can be taught to adults (something he does at his consulting company, The Hardiness Institute, in Newport Beach, California). This usually entails training people to pinpoint the actual reasons for their failure — be it their own responsibility or something out of their control — and then formulating a detailed action plan to help them rebound (see “One VP’s Setback — and Bounce Back,” page 89).
You’re in Control Here
Resiliency and a proactive attitude in the face of failure are traits that also were identified as important in a study conducted by Harvard Medical School. The study, which was first initiated in 1937, has followed the lives of 237 Harvard University students and 332 disadvantaged inner-city young men, monitoring their physical and mental health in an effort to determine if there were any predictors as to how they would age.
One of the important findings of the study, which continues today, was that people who realized they had control over how they responded to failure did the best. “The people who recognized that and are comfortable with it don’t experience the same difficulty from failure that other people do,” says George Vaillant, who is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and became director of the study in 1970. “If you regard failure as something you’re helpless over, you’re in serious trouble.”
Vaillant found that people who could accept responsibility for their role in a failure and then try to respond in a positive way tended to rebound quickly. “The ways not to deal with it are to be in denial or to say that it’s entirely someone else’s fault,” he says. “In other words, projection, injustice collection, and being in denial are very poor coping strategies. And the best coping strategies are either stoicism, to look for a silver lining, or to take the conflict and look for something creative, as an oyster does with a grain of sand.”
For his part, in his examination of past engineering failures, Duke University’s Petroski has observed that people who are open to being questioned are less likely to fail in the first place. “My impression is that those people who take criticism well tend not to fall into the trap of having major collapses,” he says. “Those people who tend not to take criticism well are prone, in my opinion, to experiencing a colossal failure.”
One VP’s Setback — and Bounce Back
Salvatore Maddi, a professor at University of California, Irvine, and head of The Hardiness Institute, was working with the vice president of human resources at a large company, teaching employees the mental skills they needed to deal better with setbacks. Halfway through the course, the VP was fired. “He came into our hardiness training session crying about it,” recalls Maddi.
Maddi walked the VP through the setback of losing a job. Here are a few of the strategies Maddi and other experts use in similar situations.
- Understand the problem. First, Maddi and the VP identified exactly why the company let him go. Maddi helped the VP understand that he was fired because the company was struggling to survive financially, not because of his performance.
- Don’t be a victim. Recognizing why he was fired kept the VP from adopting a victim’s mentality. “He was able to make an action plan, something he would have never done if he had felt like a victim,” Maddi says. “The plan was, OK, I’ve had 23 years of HR experience, I’m going to start a consulting company.” And because he didn’t feel like a victim, the VP was able to approach his former co-workers without enmity and sign them up as his first clients.
- Look for opportunity. Since then, the VP’s company has thrived. One way to find the opportunity in setback, says George Vaillant, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is by seeking out, and getting advice from, people who have been in similar situations. “When you come to a minefield and you see footprints to the other side, step in them,” he suggests. “[If you’ve lost your job,] you want to find someone who had lost their job and now has one.” —