Here’s an exercise: Think about a time in your life when you experienced success, whether it was receiving a good grade, landing your dream job, or getting a promotion. Next, try to remember a difficult moment in your life when you failed to accomplish a goal or fell short of your reaching your full potential.
In the moments of success, did you focus on your hard work, relentless commitment, and dedication that got you to succeed? Or did you brush these things off and chalk it up to luck or good timing? And in the moments of failure, did you focus all of your mental energy on that dreadful feeling of personal incompetence, or were you accepting and eager to learn from your mistakes?
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There are many ways to think and talk about one’s experiences in life. These personal narratives allow us to reflect on both our triumphs and shortcomings, and tailor our current beliefs and actions to fit our future goals.
People develop a unique style of personal narratives over time. It likely begins early on during the formative years of adolescence and academic life. Adolescence, we know, can be a turbulent time in which young people try to figure out their sense of self. An experience of failure, such as getting a bad grade on a test, can seriously impact a young person’s self-esteem and their perceptions of who they are. What is important here, is how we frame those unpleasant experiences: Seeing “failure” as a learning opportunity to grow and better oneself in the future.
This begs the question, can people actually change their personal narratives in response to both successes and failures? Can they use these narratives in a positive way for self-motivational benefit? Yes, according to new research they can.
The team of researchers, led by Brady Jones at the University of St. Francis, talk about the concept of competence-building narratives, which they define as adaptive ways of recounting one’s life experiences. Jones and colleagues propose that these can be done separately for both successes and failures.
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Success narratives, the researchers posit, involve thinking about the ways in which a person is able to achieve their goals effectively, thus increasing their self-esteem and drive to succeed again in the future. Failure narratives, on the other hand, allow a person to appreciate his or her own efforts, and recognize that they got through it, and that the experience made them more equipped to deal with future difficulties.
The purpose for Jones and colleagues was to see i) whether students who use such competence-building narratives fair better than those who don’t, and ii) if a manipulated intervention of competence-building narratives would help enhance students’ goal persistence and academic achievement.
The link between competence-building schemes and goal persistence
Sixty-two ninth-grade students from various backgrounds took part in the first study. They were first instructed to complete a survey, and write about a time they succeeded and a time they failed. Then, they were asked to complete a grit scale as a measure of persistence, and to report their most recent grades.
As the researchers predicted, students who naturally incorporated competence-building narratives into their personal narratives demonstrated greater persistence and better grades. These students not only celebrated their achievements and recognized their own hard work, but they also acknowledged their failures and the fact that they were able to move forward despite their struggles.
Another sample of ninth-grade students took part in the second study. Adding to the first study’s findings, here the researchers wanted to assess the casual effectiveness of these competence-building narratives through an intervention design. Participants were randomly assigned to either a control condition or a treatment condition, and all students were asked to write about a moment of failure and a time of success in their lives.
The treatment group differed in that they were asked to write about how the failure experience changed them in a positive way. Similarly, for the success prompt, students in a treatment condition were asked to write about the specific steps they took, and the effort they have put in that made them succeed.
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In line with the predictions, students who were instructed to include competence-building themes in their narratives of success and failure showed higher goal persistence for several weeks, and received better grades than students in the control condition.
Implications of findings
If we can consistently empower students to tell stories about their lives in a more positive way, we can help them become more resilient and motivated as they pursue their goals.
And the data don’t end with students. Success and failure is natural part of life; it follows us all the way into adulthood as we progress through our careers and personal lives. Thus it’s wise advice for all individuals to get into the habit of reflecting on both positive and negative experiences through personal story-telling.
So, whether you’re a student of school or a student of life, the next time you succeed or stumble, don’t downplay your achievements or declare yourself a failure. Instead, create a personal story, and tell it often.
Jones, B. K., Destin, M., & McAdams, D. P. (2018). Telling better stories: Competence-building narrative themes increase adolescent persistence and academic achievement. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 76, 76-80.
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