Failure From a Torah Perspective
By Lianne Heller
“Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Anonymous
What sustained Joseph through the many trials, setbacks, false accusations, and losses he endured before rising to his position of leadership and power in Egypt? Likewise, how was he so willing and able to forgive his brothers for selling him into slavery?
How did Nelson Mandela endure a life-time of prejudice, and 27 years of imprisonment only to become a forgiving and sage leader of some of the very people who acted against him?
How did Abraham Lincoln remain steadfast despite his business failures, eight election defeats, and the loss of a child?
How did authors such as William Golding of Lord of the Flies, and J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame persevere even after the many rejections they received for their now famous works?
What makes some students persevere through their academic challenges, and others give up?
In the 1960s Walter Mischel, a Stanford psychologist, conducted a series of studies on delayed gratification. Pre-school students were put in a room one-by-one and given a treat of either a marshmallow, a cookie or a pretzel stick and offered a deal: either they could eat the treat right away, or they could wait 15 minutes and receive a double quantity of the treat.
If they chose the latter deal, the child was left alone with their treat and had to resist the temptation to eat it. The students were tracked over time and the results were profound: Those who were able to wait got better grades in school, were physically healthier, had more successful careers, and stayed in relationships for longer. In short, the students who showed delayed gratification at an early age were more likely to be more successful over all. Of all the children tested, only 30 percent were able to delay gratification.
At the time of the marshmallow test, the researchers assumed that the child’s ability to wait was dependent on how badly they wanted the marshmallow. According to Mischel, it soon became obvious that all the children wanted the extra treats. But the 30 percent of children tested who were able to delay gratification had developed a strategy to help themselves get through the waiting period. “Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow. . .the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek under the desk, or singing songs from Sesame Street.” Thus, explains Mischel, their desire was not defeated; it was put aside.
As time has lapsed Mischel has become fascinated with a substantial subset of people who failed the marshmallow test at the age of four, but are now high-delaying adults. “This is the group I am most interested in,” he says. “They have substantially improved their lives.”
It is the belief of Mischel and many other researchers, (such as Angela Duckworth who developed a test for grit, perseverance, and resilience and Carol Dweck author of Mindset) that perseverance in the face of failure does not have to be an inherent personality trait. It can be taught. Like those four year old students who came up with their own strategies to avoid eating the marshmallow, we can learn and teach strategies that can be used to help one persevere through failure, setbacks, and even great losses and false accusations.
Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, developed his theory based upon his experiences of trauma and suffering in the Nazi concentration camps. He noticed that when other inmates had a strong sense of purpose (for Frankl it was to find and reunite with his wife) they lived through the most horrific of circumstances. And when an inmate lost his purpose Frankl noted that they very quickly died. His resulting Logotherapy is based on the theory that each person has their very own purpose in life. To be successful, that purpose must be the framework that guides you, even during times of great distress.
Abraham Lincoln was quoted during his presidency that if by the end of his term “I have lost every other friend on earth, I shall at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside of me.” Lincoln’s integrity and faith in himself, even in the face of a nation that doubted him, led to his becoming one of America’s greatest presidents.
In one of the most watched commencement speeches in history, Steve Jobs said: “You have to trust in something. . . Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even if it leads you off the well-worn path.”
When Joseph forgave his brothers for their part in his story, saying: “Do not be afraid. Am I in the place of G-d? You intended to harm me, but G-d intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives,” he was acknowledging that no matter what had happened, the dots were connecting. Joseph trusted that something bigger than himself and his own personal trials was in motion.
Through his passionate belief that he had a purpose in life, combined with his integrity, and deep faith that whatever happened was part of a master plan, Joseph was able to face all adversity with persistence, resilience and grit. His trials were not failures, but rather a necessary path toward success.
These are all attributes that we can teach our children. Failing a test is not a reflection of a personal shortcoming. It is a step toward success. Ask any scientist how many experiments failed before they found the answer to a question.
We can teach our children that we can’t control what others do, but we can control what we personally do. Nelson Mandela kept a scrap of paper in his cell that contained the words of the poem Invictus, by William Ernest Henley. The famous last lines, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul,” became his mantra and words of strength during his time in prison.
We can help our children find their passion and joy in life by allowing them to try many different things. Steve Jobs dropped out of university but never stopped attending classes. He explored all the subjects of his interests, and each one eventually contributed to his success.
But most important, we can teach our children that whatever happens, they can trust that there is a much bigger picture, even though at times all we can see are the dots as they slowly become connected.
Lianne Heller is the Director of Sulam, an inclusion program in the Greater Washington DC area. Students with different learning abilities from K-12 are included at Berman Hebrew Academy, where they learn alongside their peers, participate in all school activities, and are embraced by the entire school community.
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