How to Fail Successfully

Not even the most brilliant businesswoman or talented athlete gets everything right. So what makes you think you should? The key is knowing how to turn today’s flop into tomorrow’s triumph. It’s easier than you might think

by Liza Mundy
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Photograph: Illustrated by Brian Rea

If failure, played correctly, really leads to increased success, then women are natural beneficiaries. For example, one key way to recover is to reach out to people who support you, who will, as psychologist Pauline Rose Clance puts it, “soothe your horror” about whatever went wrong. Women typically are good at building networks, finding friends who can sympathize while helping to analyze the situation and figure out what part—if any—could have been avoided.

[How to Fail Successfully: Was it Your Fault?]

Women also rise above failure because they find validation in a variety of places. Unlike men, who tend to construct their identity around jobs and professional achievement, women’s sense of self rests on many girders—work, yes, but also family, community and friendship. The result: If (or, rather, when) failure occurs in one realm, women are less likely to feel that their identity has been completely shaken. “Women don’t fall as far down the failure hole,” says Pennsylvania-based psychologist Tamar Chansky, author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety. And, she points out, the older and more experienced a woman gets, the more she takes failure in stride, seeing small setbacks in a larger context and even understanding that a failure along the way can contribute to one’s ultimate success.

[How to Fail Successfully: Take Two Hours to Cry]

Where women flunk failure
While gender generalizations can be tricky, studies suggest that women take missteps more personally than men do. Women tend to be “intropunitive,” blaming themselves for failure, whereas men are more likely to attribute failure to circumstance and the action of others. Women are also more likely to ruminate—returning to the same thought over and over and brooding on setbacks. The danger of doing this is that lapses get magnified and come to feel bigger than they are, increasing the temptation to retreat or even quit.

Psychologists and other workplace experts are also struck by the frequency with which women—especially successful ones—suffer from impostor syndrome, the feeling of being a fraud who’s just a step away from a catastrophic mistake that will reveal her true incompetence to the world. The impostor phenomenon was identified by Clance and a colleague, Suzanne Imes. Clance’s guidance counselor had warned her that doing well in high school was no guarantee that she’d thrive in college. Clance went forth believing she wouldn’t be able to succeed in a bigger pond. When she began to teach and counsel at Oberlin College, she noticed how many other women (and some men, especially minorities and those from nontraditional backgrounds) described the same feeling—maintaining a steadfast belief in their own inferiority. And success doesn’t necessarily bring confidence. Many accomplished women—such as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, comedian Tina Fey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg—have acknowledged feeling like impostors.

Klawe has found impostor syndrome common among women in computer science. A few years ago, she and Kori Inkpen, a principal researcher at Microsoft, organized an “impostor” panel at a conference in Keystone, Colorado, convened for students and tech companies’ junior employees. The panel featured Klawe, Inkpen and three other prominent female tech leaders. When the panelists walked into a room that seated just over 100 people, they were amazed to see not only that every chair was occupied but also that young women were sitting on the floor, leaning against walls and wedging themselves into every last square inch of space. “There were people standing in the hallways, craning their necks to see us,” recalls Klawe.

First published in the December 2013/January 2014 issue

Share Your Thoughts!



Bravo to Liza Bundy for writing such an interesting and useful article. The women you featured in your piece are all amazing; however, the sections featuring Maria Klawe were exceptionally inspiring. I worked for Maria from 2002-2005 and can attest to her trailblazing leadership style. It makes me feel good to know the impact she has on our youth and their future. I was also fortunate to witness first hand the countless number of people she mentored. I consider myself fortunate to have worked along side her. Maria, you ROCK!

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