FAILURE Why our minor blunders seem to be so important


Nobody's perfect.

Heard that before? Chances are if you have, you've heard it uttered by some helpful soul just moments after you've flubbed something pretty spectacularly. But while it's meant to soothe, to suggest you aren't alone in your imperfection, it seldom does.

Consider the recent disappearance of the billion-dollar Mars Observer spacecraft. You'd think the rest of us ordinary mistake-makers could at least find some solace in a public disaster of that magnitude. That we could at least tell ourselves that nothing we botched this past year in our job, our relationships, our basement workshop was quite that bad.

But no.

When it comes to failure, say psychologists, we display a kind of myopia. We are too preoccupied with our own fears of failing to take any solace in the bigger failures of those around us.

"The only thing human beings are really predictable at is screwing things up," says Dr. Jim McGee, chief of psychology at Sheppard Pratt Hospital. "Everyone does it. It's human. But people who really have serious failure hang-ups tend to be so concerned about screwing up they develop self-absorption. They are not that much influenced by outside facts."

In fact, says psychologist Susan Schenkel of Cambridge, Mass., "when it comes to evaluating ourselves in comparison with others, we tend to focus on people closest to us." Dr. Schenkel, who has written about and specializes in treating people with achievement problems, says we often compare ourselves with our sisters, brothers and friends more than with the Kennedys or the Clintons.

"We are more likely to be upset if we are less successful than the kid we went to high school with than a person totally unknown to us," she says. "The fact that some rocket didn't make it, or a bunch of rocket scientists have mud on their faces, may be of curiosity to us, but it's not connected to our own self-esteem."

Lack of self-esteem lies at the heart of the desperate need of some to succeed, says Dr. McGee.

"You find people who grow up with a neurotic response to failure," he says. "When they were little kids, sitting at the kitchen table and spilled milk -- which all kids do -- their parents screamed, telling them what idiots they were. Kids learn making mistakes is awful."

Dr. McGee also counsels professional athletes, having spent several years as psychologist to the Orioles and Washington Capitals. "When I see a ballplayer who strikes out and throws his bat around and slams wall lockers I pretty much assume he grew up in an environment with very little tolerance for making mistakes," he says. And Dr. McGee notes that many people feel if they fail at something it says to others that they are worthless. "It proves no such thing. It proves you are human."

Hang-ups over failure, says Dr. Esther Rothblum of the University ofVermont, have much to do with the way we define success.

Fear of failure

"We teach kids at a young age there's one winner and everyone else is a loser," says Dr. Rothblum, who has specialized in studies on the fear of failure. "Many people are then afraid to try to win because they almost certainly won't be the best in the world. We find people put things off or do all kinds of useless strategies that keep them from trying. They would almost rather not succeed."

But, says author Richard Brodie, "people who never fail are people who never take any risks."

Mr. Brodie is the chief software designer for Microsoft in Seattle, a Harvard-educated, self-made millionaire who quit his job a few years ago to rest on his laurels. He found himself dissatisfied with life despite his wealth and spent three years searching for the ingredients of happiness.

He ended up going back to work at Microsoft and wrote a book about his search called "Getting Past OK." Its thesis is that too many people cruise along at the OK level of life, but do not press forward for true happiness because they fear failure.

"I think people are programmed to magnify failure beyond all proportions," he says over the phone from his Seattle office. "But to be a success in life you need to encounter failure more than people who are just content to survive. In fact, when a failure occurs you can pat yourself on the back and say 'Wow, I'm taking risks toward what I want in life.' "

And what sorts out well-adjusted failures from others, says Dr. Stanley Teitelbaum of New York City, is the ability to be resilient.

"There is no such thing as a perfect existence or a straight line to success," says Dr. Teitelbaum, a psychologist who specializes in issues of self-esteem. "The bottom line is how you weather the setbacks."

He says he urges patients reeling from a failure not to take any immediate action but to wait to see how they feel tomorrow. "I find when people sleep on it, they are able to gain access to a different perspective."

Licking your wounds

"Yes," says Dr. Schenkel, "some people are inclined to lick their wounds and give themselves time to be miserable and mourn their loss and look at what went wrong. Licking your wounds is a very important step. It suggests an attitude of 'Let's fix this.' "

And there is a world of distinction, she adds, between a mistake and failure. "You can fix a mistake or attempt to fix it. That's what erasers are for. But a failure is the bottom line, the period at end of sentence. It's permanent."

Or so it seems to those afraid of failing.

"People who can sanely accept the fact that failure is natural ultimately have a much lower rate of screwing up," says Dr. McGee. "They're not afraid to make mistakes, and not burdened by a lot of performance anxiety."

But, he adds, "If a lot of damage was done in childhood, fear of failure is something you will struggle with for the rest of life. It becomes an Achilles' heel."

Some people are able to deal with it by recognizing fear of failing as a real area of vulnerability.

"But they will tell you the same story," says Dr. McGee. "When they grew up and made a mistake, the roof caved in. Hardly ever did anyone ever tell them they were lovable, decent human beings simply because they were there. They'd bring home a report card with five A's and one B and the first question out of the old man was 'How come that wasn't an A?' I've met people in their 60s whose parents were in their 90s. And the old man still won't tell the 60-year-old, who is a very successful business executive, 'Hey I'm proud of you.' "

Things could be worse

No list of great failures can ever be complete; there are just too many of them. But here is a list of bungled policies, plans and strategies that ought to put the ordinary, everyday failure into perspective.

*Disappearance of NASA's $1 billion Mars Observer: Had it been a $500 million project, it might not top the list. There's just something about the word billion.

* U.S. involvement in Vietnam: Look up failure in the dictionary and you'll see a map of Vietnam.

* The Russian involvement in Afghanistan: Same thing with a Russian dictionary.

* The 1980 failed rescue attempt of the American hostages in Iran: Jimmy Carter's most anguished hour.

* Dennis Conner loses the America's Cup, 1983: Even winning it back didn't completely erase the stain of humiliation.

* The Ford Edsel: Today it's a collectors' item; in 1959 it wasn't even an item.

* The 23-game losing streak of the '88 Orioles: Losing ugly took on new meaning.

* Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, 1815: Should have stayed on Elba, Boney.

* Eli Jacobs' bankruptcy, 1993: Should have stayed on Elba, Eli.

* The Titanic, 1912: The unthinkable.

* Movies: "Ishtar"; "Hudson Hawk," "Heaven's Gate": Sometimes less is more.

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