Succeeding When You’re Supposed to Fail: Book review and summary

I just finished reading Succeeding When You’re Supposed To Fail: The 6 Enduring Principles of High Achievement by Rom Brafman. So much of it deals with issues of parenting and teaching non-traditional students (which I do at the Clemente Course), that I thought I would take some time to summarize the book for myself and others. I italicize my editorial comments below.

First of all, I should note that Brafman is a psychologist — this is not a reported non-fiction book.

Second, the full title of the book is important. While the skills and mindsets discussed are useful for anyone, the focus here is on people who face adversity and how they overcome those obstacles to succeed. Brafman tells of a discussion with a Stanford admissions officer who weighs a 3.5 average from an underprivileged neighborhood school more highly than a 4.0 from a wealthy suburban school. This makes sense — the first student has some sort of character traits that helped him or her succeed (when expected to fail); the second student may have the same characteristics, but then again, they might not.

So: who are the people who succeed in adverse circumstances? Brafman calls them “tunnellers” because they have a way of boring through all the obstacles in their way. Tunnelers are regular people who have strong personality traits, and Brafman claims that they share six particular traits.

1. Tunnelers take responsibility for their circumstances.

This is not to say that they don’t recognize injustice in the world or that others may have contributed to problems. However, tunnelers recognize their contribution to their situation and realize that they are the only ones who can help dig themselves out of problems.

Note that this is very different from “happiness studies” where an appreciation for luck, or God, or the contributions of others are said to result in a happier state of mind. Tunnelers realize that they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, although, as we’ll see, not totally alone.

2. Tunnelers make meaning

Tunnelers are following their passions and pursuing their dreams. They don’t work this hard without an end in mind. Brafman uses zookeepers as an example. Shoveling animal dung may seem demeaning to some, but many zookeepers are college graduates who feel privileged to do their work despite the low pay. (Sounds a bit like teaching some days…)

How do we maximize meaning? A few ways: i. surround yourself with meaningfulness (family, volunteer work, a career that is your calling), ii. continue to seek, asking yourself, what can I do to life my life to the fullest? (this is more common in Asian cultures but we can learn to recognize the search for meaning as meaningful in itself), iii. find a community to discuss your passions with (they can agree or not, so long as they take your interests seriously).

This is veering into Aristotle territory. What is the proper function of a human being? How can you be your best self? Brafman is saying that even asking that question — being a philosopher! — is part of the answer.

In the Clemente Course, students are self-selected to a certain extent. If they want to take the course, they are looking to improve themselves and they are asking questions of themselves. As course directors and teachers, we work on fostering the communities that develop, creating a peer group that is responsive to each individuals queries. Many students tell me how much they appreciate other individuals in the class as role models, as friendly competitors, and as moral support.

3. Unwavering commitment

To accomplish their goals, tunnelers have a deeply rooted sense that they are meant to achieve. Obstacles become challenges to overcome. The most important personality trait in this regard is emotional stability. They do not allow themselves to be rocked hard by negative events, but carry on with equanimity.

I’ve found this to be a challenge in Clemente Courses. Many people sign up, still unsure how deep their commitment to the program is. Many people have underlying emotional issues that make dealing with problems difficult. The best thing we can do is to create classrooms full of mutual support, remind students of the ultimate goal (perhaps through stories of alumni success), and model calm behavior.

4. Temperament

This builds on the idea of emotional stability: even-tempered disposition is often a characteristic of successful people. They are clear on their goals, but they don’t overreact to setbacks. Brafman’s example: if you get a traffic ticket, does it ruin your day or week? or do you decide you can learn from this and move on?

5. Humor

A sense of humor is prevalent among those who succeed despite negative circumstances. What’s the mechanism? Humor helps alleviate anxiety. Humor is also culturally dependent and having a good sense of humor is indicative of emotional intelligence. Different types of humor are culturally relevant; for example, among a group of male police officers in a study, teasing put-downs are often a way to include someone into a group, but that same behavior might feel demeaning in another context.

6. Satellites

A satellite is someone who has unconditional positive regard for another person. This does not mean they do not criticize or give difficult advice, but that the subject knows that the satellite always has his or her best interests at heart. Examples include mentors in the Big Brother Big Sister program — there is no requirements to be a Big Brother except to spend a certain amount of time with your little brother; even so, kids with Big Brothers or Sisters show marked improvement in school and in other areas.

This is basically our job as course directors. If the students feel that someone is looking out for them, this is a huge step towards their eventual success in the Clemente Course and beyond. As I was writing this, I just got an e-mail from a student: “You guys are such supportive professors.” The idea of a stranger being so supportive is new for a lot of Clemente students and this is often the setback that students report when entering a local college — the professors didn’t give the same kind of support. It’s not about writing centers or guidance counsellors, it’s about the general feeling that the teachers care about their prospects in life. If we want our students to succeed post-Clemente, one key may be to find people at local colleges to be satellites — to point out the campus resources, but also to just be a steady, positive influence.

Brafman has a final short paragraph where he suggests ways to put these ideas into practice. He breaks it down based on the person you are trying to help.

Yourself: Focus on how you can change a bad situation, find meaning, stay calm, stay the course, give yourself a break when setbacks occur, use humor, look for satellites (mentors), allow yourself to become inspired. When you’ve successfully tunneled through an issue, remind yourself of your success.

Employees (or students): Listen to their input, press further when they are passionate about a subject, be a good coach, model good calm behavior, think of them as family, help them see their own strengths, give positive feedback.

Children: Give them choices, follow through on their interests, know when to quit vs. persevere, model good behavior, laugh together, communicate love and respect, encourage them to take risks and challenge themselves, let them know you’re there for them, let them know you are part of a team, treat them as a friend — “supportive, critical when necessary, but always unconditionally loyal.”

Overall, the book is a quick, easy read with lots of illuminating anecdotes that help the reader remember these concepts, and at less than 200 pages, Brafman gets to the important points quickly and doesn’t pad out the page count. Highly recommended for teachers and parents.

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