“You will fail. That’s great. Here’s a secret for you – that’s the only way you can learn. Learning has to cost you something.” -Stella Adler
In life, losing is part of growing. For organs to form during embryonic development, some cells must commit suicide. Without such programmed cell death, we would all be born with webbed feet like ducks.
Overcoming Success catch-22
In the novel Catch-22, a fighter pilot decides he no longer wants to continue flying combat missions. He realizes there is a high possibility that he can lose his life if he continues and so he decides that he has flown enough missions.
So he then goes on to talk to the military doctor and requests to be grounded. The doctor explains that he cannot ground him based on his physical health. The pilot then claims to be crazy so that he can be grounded for psychological reasons. Still, the doctor doesn’t buy it from the pilot or the other bomber crew members who all agree that the pilot is crazy.
The doctor calls this catch-22: The pilot isn’t crazy, he’s asking to be grounded, which is a rational self-preserving desire; however, he considers the other crew members crazy because they don’t ask to be grounded (an irrational life-threatening choice).
This paradox is a similar hurdle for anyone who wants to become really successful: the more people want to succeed, the more they try to avoid the very kind of experiences that will bring about the learning that is needed to be a long-term success.
NASA has used significant failure as an important qualification for selecting new recruits. When they were looking for potential candidates for the Apollo 11 lunar mission, they invited resumes from the American people. They first weeded out applicants based on academic qualifications but they still had several thousand candidates.
The next step was interesting. They weeded out all candidates who had not bounced back from a significant failure at some time in their life. The apparent premise was that a person who had failed and then gotten up again was a stronger contender then one who had never experienced failure.
The butterfly’s struggle
A man was watching a butterfly struggling to break out of its cocoon. After making some progress to work its way through a small hole, the butterfly appeared to simply stop its efforts. For some time it seemed to make no progress, so the man concluded it was stuck and decided to help it by forming a larger opening in the cocoon with scissors. Afterward the butterfly emerged easily but with small, shriveled wings and a swollen body.
It turns out that the struggle to emerge from the cocoon would have forced the fluid from the butterfly’s body into its wings, a necessary process for enabling it to fly. As a result of the man’s well-intentioned help, he had interfered with nature’s life-strengthening process. The butterfly was now doomed to never fly, but to crawl around with its swollen body and shriveled wing for the rest of its life.
We need failures in life to provide us with the opportunities to wrestle with the kind of challenge that can squeeze the life-giving fluid we need to strengthen our wings for successful flight in life.