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Failure IS an Option

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” This quote is so popular that it’s been attributed to at least two all-time great athletes (Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan). The idea behind it is that you shouldn’t get so paralyzed thinking that you’ll fail that you never even try. The importance of taking risks is an integral part of American entrepreneurial culture and is one of the main reasons why so many of the world’s largest companies and most famous scientists, inventors, and leaders are from the United States.

Yet, I’ve noticed that even here in the U.S. we are starting to lose this mission. In the “Age of the Participation Trophy,” children are rewarded just for showing up without putting any effort into the final product. Parents shower praise for even the smallest accomplishment. However, research suggests that this approach is counterproductive. Instead, rather than telling your child “I like the art you made,” you should say “I like that you worked so hard on this piece of art.” By emphasizing the process rather than the outcome, you promote what actually matters: good work ethic. Children who are told that they make good art are less likely to experiment and more likely to continue to make more of the same art for which they were praised before. No one will remember the drawing your child made at five years old, but the lessons he learned will stick with him for the rest of his life.

I believe that a similar lesson can be applied to a range of situations, such as choosing challenging classes or picking a job. However, I believe that the best and most relevant example is in applying for fellowships and grants. As I have discussed in a previous blog post, I believe that these “elite exit opportunities” are what really boost a college student’s resume and elevate him above the other tens of thousands of students graduating from great universities with great grades. The Fulbright Research Grant is considered by many to be the most prestigious of these scholarships. Recipients of the Fulbright Research Grant receive stipends to conduct independent research projects in countries of their choosing. Given the scholarship’s reputation, one might assume that it is extremely competitive. To many people’s surprise, this is not necessarily the case; for the 2018-2019 academic year, only 25 students applied to conduct research in Russia, of which 12 received the scholarship (48% acceptance). Of course, those who applied were likely more accomplished than the average college student. Nevertheless, rationally speaking, given those odds, everyone who is eligible should at least apply. The reason people do not apply is because they are afraid of rejection.

Steve Jobs was kicked out of his own company. JK Rowling was turned down by twelve publishers. Bill Gates’ first company went bankrupt. We grow through adversity and need to risk rejection in order to taste success. If you always play it safe, life will never be more than just “okay.” Strive for more than “okay;” strive for greatness.



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