Failure and personal growth and achievement

“You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing that we call ‘failure’ is not the falling down, but the staying down.”

Mary Pickford (1892-1979), one of the most popular movie stars of her era, and co-founder of United Artists.

One of the many things that can fuel our sense of failure, even at a young age, is comparing what we do and attempt to do with what others have accomplished. Gifted children may be especially pressured to achieve.

J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, is certainly a prime example of success and accomplishment.

But in this video, her Commencement Address st Harvard University, June 5, 2008, she reminds us that achievement is not a singular event or a linear progression.

Here is an excerpt from the transcript, from the Harvard Magazine article “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination”.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale.

An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun.

That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.

Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.

Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.

NOTE – Some of her address is quoted in the book The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life by Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D.


The Pressure to Perform and A Sense of Failure

Alissa Quart read at age 3 and wrote her first novel when she was 7, and “writes about pressures put on children, especially gifted children and prodigies, that encourage perfectionism, performance anxiety and lifelong feelings of not being able to keep up,” according to a newspaper article [Prodigies and the push to excel by Debora Vrana, Los Angeles Times Sept 30 2006.]

Her father especially, Quart said, was “hell-bent on bettering my lot — and by extension our family’s lot — and keep me from languishing in what he considered the Blank Generation.”

He “drilled her on such cultural trivia as the names of B-movie actresses, and on revolutionary movements and vocabulary.

“Some parents see gifted children as some sort of insurance as they try to navigate the middle class without a safety net,” Quart said.

The article adds, “Quart names this pressure to achieve the ‘Icarus Effect,’ after the story of Icarus. who flew too high, the wings melted and he fell to the sea.

“While Quart never fell into the sea, she said she struggled with a ‘distinct feeling of failure’ as she grew older, in part because of the high expectations placed on her.”

Alissa Quart is the author of Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child.

Above quotes also used in the “Pressure to Perform” section of my book “Developing Multiple Talents: The personal side of creative expression”
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Failure and personal growth development

Failure can limit or empower



  1. I think that J.K. Rowling’s first book was really hard to publish. it’s been challenge to convince publishers even to print it and put in to sale. Noone believed that it may have some impact. And see what happened.

  2. Each failure does indeed bring you one step closer to success. It emables you to eliminate that possibility and to move on to one which might work. Failure makes you look around and search for something more; without failure you might not have done this. Failure in fact is the instigator of growth.

  3. It’s certainly very important in life to put failure in the proper perspective.

    I run a website and I’m always aiming to drive more customers there. I’ve tried so many methods and the majority of them haven’t worked. However I realise the important thing is to try and my experimentation has left me with excellent knowledge in this field.

  4. This is a very inspiring post. It is not failure, but our response to failure that determines so much of our success in life, or lack thereof. Thanks for sharing J.K. Rowling’s speech with us. It’s a motivator for us all.

What do you think about these topics?