Tiny triumphs

What does success mean for you? When you complete a project or physical task, do you label yourself as either a ‘success’ or a ‘failure’?

What equals success for you – 100 percent in a maths or spelling test, a wide circle of friends, winning a 5K race? If so, what equals failure – is it their direct opposites? Let’s say, however, that you came 10th (out of 30) in that run but beat your personal best by five minutes. Is that still failure? Answer: no. Some, however, might think otherwise. And this fear of failure may put them off competing again. Where does this fear or mindset come from? Babies don’t have it – think of how they fall down repeatedly while learning to walk but keep getting up time and time again. Over the years, however, the notion sometimes creeps in that not coming first or not completing a task at the first attempt equals failure and it can zap positivity and progress.

What if this perception changed and everyone saw success as being on a spectrum or line instead? This allows for different levels of achievement between what is traditionally perceived as ‘success’ and ‘failure’ and this can be helpful. Why? Because these two concepts are closer than many think. Not convinced? Consider the words of physicist Albert Einstein: ‘Failure is success in progress.’ At any one time, it’s possible to be on different places on this spectrum – a student might be further along in maths than they are geography. And things can also go back and forth because the spectrum isn’t set. What might appear one moment to be failure, say a science experiment, might bring an unexpected revelation the next.

Assess performance according to your own personal spectrum because success can equal many different things.


  1. When people try something different or learn a new skill, they are likely to falter at first. Many of the world’s most successful athletes, authors and business leaders speak about how their disappointments ultimately led to their greatest achievements because they didn’t give up or worry about things not working out.
  2. Instead of viewing a task or project as a failure, try to see it as a learning experience or opportunity to be explored on the road to success. Don’t beat yourself up. Instead, help yourself up because each step, no matter how seemingly small, is positive and a sign of progress.
  3. If people didn’t feel disappointment, they might not keep striving to achieve their ambition. Likewise, experiencing the joy of achieving a personal target can spark a desire to tackle other tasks.


School is a place where the terms success and failure are used a lot. Ultimately, most people there want students to aim for, and achieve, their best possible grades. With every student working at different levels, however, it’s important only to compete with yourself rather than to compare your results with those of your peers.

Even on the occasions when you don’t come up to your own measure of success, it’s important to see it as one element on the ever-shifting success spectrum and to explore what you might be able to learn from it.

Sport is another area where people often perceive there to be successes and failures. Whether it’s running, football or swimming, athletes have targets of beating an opponent, which means there’s always a person or team that comes first and often many runners-up.

Let’s take the example of a 5K run again. One person will cross the line first, but among the runners-up behind them will be many successes – athletes who hit personal bests, who learned how to overtake safely, or who simply achieved their dream of reaching the finishing line. It’s not only about who crossed the line first and who got there last. It’s about the long and varied list of experiences learned on the track and those achievements will be different for everyone in the race.


  • JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishers before she finally found someone who would accept it. She’s gone on to be one of the most successful authors of all time.
  • It took more than 5,000 designs until inventor James Dyson created a vacuum cleaner that worked – and even that one was initially knocked back by manufacturers. The Dyson brand is now a global hit.
  • Tennis legend Serena Williams has won 23 Grand Slam singles finals and has shown losing is part of the journey. She said: ‘I really think a champion is defined not by their wins but by how they can recover when they fall.’

Words. Donna Findlay

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