Root For Failure In Pursuit Of Success

root for failureWe’re #1! We all want to be on the winning team, because failure doesn’t bring forth an immediate reward. Nevertheless, the closest many of us will come to competitive sports will be filling out our tournament bracket for college basketball this month.

But this year, when your friends and co-workers chat about who moved on and who went home after each game, pay attention to their selection of one of two pronouns – “we” or “they” – when talking about the teams. As you might expect, we almost always associate ourselves with the winners (“We clearly dominated on offense the whole game!”) and disassociate ourselves with the losers (“They just never showed up to play.”).

Winning and Losing Attitudes

This phenomena has been labeled by social psychologists as BIRGing and CORFing. BIRGing is an acronym for “Basking In Reflected Glory” and CORFing means “Cutting Off Reflected Failure”. One of the most influential studies of this phenomena was done by Dr. Robert B. Cialdini et al. in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 34, Sep. 1976.

Cialdini and his co-authors demonstrated the tendency to “bask in reflected glory” or associate oneself publicly with successful others by using a series of experiments with football fans from seven large prestigious football schools (e.g., Ohio State, Michigan, and Notre Dame) across the U.S. The researchers observed students tending to wear more apparel associating themselves with their own university on the Monday following a big win compared to when they lost. Their research continued with interviews of the students on the BIRGing effect. To little surprise, the students continued their association verbally by tending to use the pronoun “we” more to describe their team when they won and “they” more when the team had lost.

Yet, is “Basking In Reflected Glory” with the winners to enhance and protect your self-esteem, your social identity, really what is best for you? Can more value actually be found in failure?

Failure Paves The Way To Success

The best coaches always see an unfinished path to do better, expect more. With the good must come the bad, and it may be failure which enhances our focus on betterment and success far more than the comfort of victory. Our coaches and mentors are seasoned practitioners because they have lived their failures while their opponents hoisted up the largest trophies. Their losses helped them recognize their weaknesses and how to focus their pursuit for future achievements. In other words, their counterfactual thinking (the tendency to create possible alternatives to life events contrary to what actually happened) from their near wins allowed for better self-reflection and goal setting, as opposed to being complacent with BIRGing. Hence, counterfactual thinking can motivate individuals into goal-oriented actions in order to attain their (previously failed) goals in the future.

A mentoring relationship can help steer a career and personal achievement two-fold: through shared experiences of the mentor’s near wins in their constant pursuit for excellence, and by supporting the mentee through the regret of “what could have been” as losses occur. Just as a coach motivates a team to reflect and improve after a loss, a mentor provides analysis and support to play on and improve.

Masters of a trade are not experts because they take their art to a conceptual end. They are masters because they realize there isn’t an end. So, next time you begin to distance yourself from that losing team (or “Cutting Off Reflective Failure”), consider embracing your losing team instead. Your pursuit of success will thank you.

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