Stronger at the Broken Places:
The Paradoxical Impact of Failure
by Martha Stark, MD
Lecturer on Psychiatry (part-time),
Harvard Medical School
Probably familiar to most of us is Ernest Hemingway’s, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places” (1957). Many writers since have reiterated this same sentiment, including, more recently, Kelly Clarkson in her well-known song, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” (2011).
Similarly, there is an old Japanese adage that goes “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” I love this but, quite frankly, believe it does not do full justice by the concept of resilience. If a failure is appropriately grieved and responsibility taken for the contribution we might have made to the failure, then we will probably end up ahead of the game – wiser for the experience and, indeed, better off for having failed.
So perhaps more to the point would be “Fall down seven times, but stand up ever taller every time thereafter.”
By the same token, people like to say, as if by way of reassurance, that “everything happens for a reason.” I myself do not specifically subscribe to this, but I do believe that when bad things happen, which is almost inevitable, we will be able to end up ahead of things (indeed, stronger for having failed) if we can commit to learning from the experience and, going forward, perhaps can embrace something new, different, and better than what we might otherwise have invited into our life.
Another benefit from failure is now occurring to me. Once we have fallen and found that we are indeed able to recover, then perhaps, from that point onwards, we will not have to be quite as fearful of falling again because we will know that we have it in us to recover from whatever fall we might have taken.
Parenthetically, I have noticed that Olympic figure skaters will sometimes, almost as if on purpose, fall down on an easy step near the beginning of their program – perhaps to get failure and subsequent recovery out of the way – and then go on to skate a clean program!
On another note: Something that I have found useful as a way of conceptualizing the paradoxical impact of failures, especially over time, is the sandpile model of chaos theory (developed by Bak, Tang, and Wiesenfeld in 1987).
Amazingly enough, the grains of sand being steadily added to a gradually evolving sandpile are the occasion for both its disruption and its repair. Not only do the grains of sand being added precipitate partial collapses of the sandpile (described as minor avalanches by chaos theorists) but they also become the means by which the sandpile will then be able to build itself back up – every time at a new level of homeostatic balance.
The sandpile will therefore have been able not only to manage the impact of the challenge but also to benefit from that challenge. In other words, evolution of the sandpile will have advanced not just in spite of but by way of the periodic disruptions to its integrity.
What a lovely metaphor for our own evolution over time by virtue of our ability to manage our failures. Indeed, do we not progress from less evolved to more evolved by way of negotiating, and ultimately surviving, our various failures? And are not the irregularities in the sandpile, much like the scars we all bear, poignant reminders of the minor collapses (and failures) all of us have sustained over time but ultimately triumphantly overcome?
I am here reminded of Kintsukuroi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold or silver lacquer and appreciating that the piece will then be more beautiful for having been broken.
So I will close with the following as a tribute to the therapeutic impact of failure: If a bone is fractured and then heals, the area of the break will be stronger than the surrounding bone and will not again easily break. I therefore wonder – Are we too not stronger at our broken places? And is there not a certain beauty in brokenness, a beauty never achieved by things unbroken? In fact, do we not acquire a quiet strength from surviving adversity and hardship and mastering the experience of disappointment and heartbreak? And, then, when we finally rise above it, do we not rise up in quiet triumph, even if only we notice?
Bak, P., Tang, C., & Wiesenfeld, K. “Self-organized criticality: An explanation of 1/f noise.” Phys. Rev. Lett. 59, 381 – Published 27 July 1987.
Clarkson, K. “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).” Stronger. RCA Records. 2011.
Hemingway, E. (1957). A farewell to arms. Charles Scribner’s Sons.