Why Do We Love to See People Fail?
Are you a bad person for salivating over others’ failure stories or is there a productive lesson to be learned in our morbid curiosity?
The other day I was watching an interview with a highly successful full-time writer and digital entrepreneur. I was hoping to learn from his success on certain platforms, but as I stared at his impressive revenue stats, I could feel the jealousy boiling inside me.
And then he said the most endearing thing ever.
He said something along the lines of “back when I was in prison”, followed by a sprinkling of confessions of having been a drug dealer, a thief, and a bad person all around.
I perked up and immediately felt hopeful again.
Sure, he was in the top 1% (maybe even 0.1%) of earners on his primary revenue-generating platform. Sure, he had a six-year headstart on me. Sure, he had a fluffy niche full of self-help hungry readers and customers, awaiting voraciously his new listicle, so they could quickly devour and just as quickly forget his artfully-worded, well-researched advice…
But I had a leg-up on him.
I hadn’t been to prison. I hadn’t been a drug dealer. I hadn’t been a thief. I hadn’t done any of those things, so I couldn’t possibly fail as badly as he already had.
That one small passing confession of his disarmed my jealousy and got me on his team. Instead of seeing him as my competition, I saw him as a peer; a more successful and experienced one on certain platforms, but a peer for whom I would cheer like a teammate, nonetheless.
So, that begs the question, why do we revel in others’ failures and disappointments?
Why should someone else’s negative past increase our own hope towards a positive future?
There are a few reasons we feel this way, as well as some lessons we can learn on both sides (as the successful interviewee and as the envious onlooker).
Let’s start with the humble bragger:
If you’re the successful one, the one aiming to teach or inspire others, you of course want to lead with your successes. Why in the world would an audience take direction from you if you haven’t yet proven yourself an expert and success story in your chosen field?
However, some people are haters. We just are. We can’t help it; we’re jealous.
But you can win them over too.
If you can do what the interviewee in my story did — let’s call him Alan — then you can surely get the envious competitors like myself on your side.
All you need to do is build in a bit of vulnerability.
This is actually one of the keys to building a personal brand and selling self-branded products online. You need to connect with your audience on an emotional level, and human vulnerability is the fastest and easiest way to do so.
This could be a failed relationship, financial struggles, former depression — anything really. It can be anything, but the more raw, real, and negative it is, the more people will like you…and possibly buy from you.
We like to see you fail, remember? It makes us feel better about ourselves.
Okay, now back to the people like me (and possibly you):
Roll call for all the envious silent learners, lurking in the digital corners of the internet, pouting over our competitors’ earnings…“Present!”
You probably stumbled upon this article because you do consider yourself one of those people. You may be ashamed to admit it, but you do derive a small, noticeable amount of pleasure from seeing other people fail.
I’m going to break this up into three sections: Why we do this, whether it’s a bad thing, and what we can learn from it.
Why does another person’s failure make us beam with happiness?
- Relief: Seeing someone fail is such a relief. Phew, they can’t be perfect all-around, so glad we finally found the chink in their armor!
- Excuse: Their failure excuses our own. If they failed, then our failure isn’t possibly as bad…they may have even failed far worse than us, making our failure almost seem like a not-so-failure after all.
- Hope: Their graduation from failure to success paints a picture of the future that we want and encourages us to believe that, perhaps, this will one day be the case. We may be failing now, but if they could go from a prison drug-dealer to a top-earning content creator, we can of course go from mediocre performance to outsized earnings in our new venture (or whatever that goal is that you’re currently “failing” at).
- Leveling: The fact that they’ve failed puts us on a level playing field, knocks them off their pedestal (in our eyes), and enables us to look at them like peers, even friends, rather than competitors or enemies. Leveling enables us to open up and learn from them, maybe one day collaborate with them, and even cheer them on and root for their success. Leveling is a brilliant marketing and sales strategy on their part, whether they know it or not.
Is this whole “loving to see others fail” trait a bad thing?
Well no, not exactly. It’s human. It’s normal, for a lot of people at least…there are some hopelessly nice, “happy for others’ success” type of humans who have never had a jealous bone in their body, but I’m assuming they’re not the ones reading this, so we’ll just skip over them for now…
For the rest of us “normal” people with normal reactions and a normal and healthy amount of intrinsic ambition and competition, this jealousy and celebration of our competitors’ failures is almost an instinctive reaction.
We feel threatened, inferior, and defensive upon coming face to face (even virtually, through a YouTube interview or written transcript) with our more-successful, more-experienced peers. Therefore, our bodies and minds jump into protection mode and the spikes come out.
While this type of reaction isn’t the nicest and perhaps isn’t something you want to share with your more judgmental friends or family, it’s actually not a bad thing if you can learn from it.
So, what can you learn from it?
- Patience and timing: Now that you know about this person’s failure, does that offer any new insights into the true timeline behind their success? If you’re now seeing that they’ve been working on their current uber-successful venture for the past ten years, the seeming “overnight success story” looks a whole lot different.
- Resilience: What did this person learn from their own failure story? How were they able to overcome that failure and go from that low point in their life to the high they’re at now? There should be lessons in their resilience, and perhaps you can determine some of the most pivotal shifts they made to level-up and completely transform their situation.
- Salesmanship: If this person is offering up intimate details about their past, admitting their failures and disappointments, and perhaps even telling you about the journey that took them from low to high, they’re doing more than answering interview questions. They’re selling to an audience, and they’re doing it well. You should take note. Whether they know it or not, they’re building an emotional bridge between themselves and the audience. They’re cultivating a fan base, a classroom, and even a potential customer group, simply by opening up and making themselves more accessible to their listeners, admirers, and competitors.
- Responsibility: Lastly, you need to take a good hard look at your excuse-making and assess whether you’re really taking responsibility for the aspects of your failure that may be your fault. See how the successful interviewee takes responsibility for the lows on his journey and turn the lens back on yourself to determine whether you’re doing the same.
Now you know why you revel in others’ failures, that it doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person, and what you can learn from these failure-turned-successes and your reaction to them…so what can you do with this information?
You can plan to learn from failure by diving deep into the failure stories of your greatest role models.
- What was the greatest failure they faced?
- How does this compare to the “failures” or obstacles you face?
- What was their secret weapon for pushing through this setback?
- How, why, and where are they sharing their failure story?
- Are they sharing their failure in a way that builds rapport, cultivates a loyal encouraging audience, and makes you want to support them, rather than throw rocks of jealousy at them until they go away, leaving you to rise up as the supreme competitor?
Failure stories can be some of the most insightful, encouraging, informative stories, peppered with the most valuable and actionable lessons you’ll ever learn…that is if you’re learning from the right type of failure.
The goal here is to learn from the failures-turned-successes.
These are the people you’re jealous of. These are the competitors you try to stop yourself from wishing bad things upon out of jealousy since you worry it will negatively impact your karma. If you’re rooting for someone to fail or finding yourself incurably jealous of their success, there may be some useful takeaways that a little social stalking could help you uncover.
Don’t get jealous; get even — by finding their failures, how they overcame them and game-planning your way to do the same with the failures in your own life.