We hear it all the time; "Fail again. Fail better." "If you want to succeed, double your failure rate" "You cannot be successful without failure" and so forth. These are the words of some of the most successful people in history and now, but what are they on about? Why must we fail in order to be successful? Where does failure fit into the picture?
This is a very good question, and one I have been asking a lot myself lately.
So why so much emphasis on failure? No businessman, newlywed couple, or university student will tell you that failure is one of their objectives in their route to success.
But it seems that highly successful people seem to think so, and boldly emphasise it, repeatedly. Is failure some sort of exotic elixir to reach success? The logic seems to counter our conventional wisdom.
But perhaps experience is a better teacher than logic and they may just be on to something:
1. So what is failure?
Failure, by definition, can be described as the opposite of success; missing the mark, not meeting a desirable goal or intended target.
As a noun, failure can be described as the "non-performance of something due, required or expected"
- The car experienced engine failure.
- He felt like a failure when he wasn't accepted into law school.
- The business project was a complete failure.
- She had failed at her marriage
Two types of failures
1. Utter failure
2. Temporary failure
Both are one in the same, but by illustration they are quite different:
1. Utter failure
This sort is usually the hardest to deal with, It has the highest potential for depression and demotivation.
John had a great idea for a business, his family and friends greatly endorsed and supported it, It was a good idea. When the time was right he left his job, put his home as collateral and invested his life savings into the project.
He ran the business successfully for 4 years and was making good gains.
Things did not go as planned however, in year 5 the warehouse he had purchased for inventory burnt down due to acts of nature and he lost 90% of his stock and almost all his capital in assets.
The insurance company failed to cover the losses and he was left broke, and on the brink of homelessness.
2. Temporary failure
This type of failure can be used synonymously with 'setback', Its outcomes are usually not that severe and can be viewed upon as lessons:
Peter also had a great idea for a business. He invested large sums of money into it and ran it successfully for 4 years. In year 5 his business started to grow and the tasks became too much for him to handle on his own, so he hired help, and enter his lifelong friend Bob;
Bob turned out to be not the best manager; he was the cause of a lot of staff resignations that year and during his tenure the company lost a quarter of its key clientelle and the business profits slumped.
Peter had failed his business, temporarily, he could find an easy remedy to the problem and learn from his error in judgement.
John on the other hand had it harder. He experienced utter failure and defeat. He had to start over or move on to a new project. He had more work to do, more to deal with, he had to get his life back together.
Both men had failed, but on different scales, both were left demotivated and discouraged, neither were failures however.
Failure was an event that happened to them which both could learn and grow from. A fitting word of encouragement to one of them who fell into depression would be "Just because you failed once at something does not mean you will fail at everything." ~ Marilyn Monroe
2. What we learn from failure
Maya Angelou once said "You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, and how you can still come out of it."
Failure truly is a humbling experience, but it is an excellent tutor.
If we can learn from failure it teaches us much, things we thought we knew about ourselves but actually didn't. Through quite self-reflection and honest introspection in our lowest times we find out who we are, our passions, and what we are good at.
Failure says "You're not as good of a salesman as you think you are, so improve" or "You're a bad financial manager, get advice or learn how to budget."
Failure steers us in the right direction, it says "That's not the route you should take, take this route instead."
And slowly through a zigzag motion of several setbacks and dead ends we arrive at our destination, battered and bruised, be we arrive nonetheless; stronger, wiser, more confident and bolder than we were before.
In engineering, the greatest inventions come about after a large degree of failure, for instance Thomas Edison demonstrates this well when he says: "I have not failed. I have found 10,000 ways that won't work."
Failure can be progress.
When the engine fails, we learn that something is wrong with it, and fix it so we avoid imminent disaster. Failure teaches us to plan for failure so we minimise the risk, thereby getting toward our goal much quicker.
3. How we learn from failure
Human beings learn in many ways -- through education, the internet, people, literature, experience and so on. But primarily our brain is hardwired to learn in one of two ways; play and errors in judgement;
If you've ever stuck your finger in an electric wall plug or touched a burning stove as a child, you learnt quickly not to do that again. The feeling of pain discouraged repeated behaviour as the experience of it was unpleasant and undesirable.
In early development toddlers learn exclusively through play; by touching, tasting, feeling, smelling and hearing the world around them they learn what the world is about. They learn to walk through trial and error and after many many falls.
When the toddler grows up they continue to learn through play and repeated failure. They fall, cry, climb, and fall some more until they can successfully and skillfully climb up that tree.
To adulthood the same process continues, we never stop playing. Games just take on new and different forms.
When we make mistakes we learn, much like in our youth. Failure is unpleasant yes, it is uncomfortable. It is undesirable and is an inconvenient hindrance in our path to our goals, but it is necessary. To fail is to learn, to learn is to grow. To grow is to progress.
4. How we deal with failure
Once upon a time there were twin boys born of an alcoholic father. In adulthood one became an alcoholic and the other a successful person. When asked why he was such the alcoholic responded "What would you expect, my father was an alcoholic." When the other was asked the same question he also responded "What would you expect, my father was an alcoholic." Both had choices and both chose a path.
Dorothy, was abused by her father throughout her childhood. Her father passed away when she was 20 but throughout her adult life she blamed him for everything that happened to her; her depression, her ill health, her poor relationships, her finances, her poor social relations etc.
Her father had passed away 25 years prior but his presence was still felt by her and he still held power over her life, or so she thought, for actually the power was in her mind. There are many stories of people who went through similar challenges and great difficulties in their early life but made a success out of themselves by turning their situation around. Our success is determined by how we deal with failure, either we can let it beat us or we can let it teach us.
5. Maximising On failure
There are certain lessons that can only be learnt from hard failure. There are countless stories in history where people used bad situations and turned it to good, people who maximised on their failure and seized the opportunity and did something great in their plight, to name just a few;
John Milton did his best writing while blind, sick and poor
Beethoven composed his greatest work after he went deaf
Daniel Dafoe, author of Robinson Crusoe wrote his book at his lowest, as a failure in prison.
Sometimes our greatest feats await us in our lowest times. It is all about how we deal with the situation that counts. Either we can be glad we went through the experience and came out bigger better and stronger, or we can dabble in self pity and depression.
So you got pregnant and you don't know what to do. Or you just failed the year in school and you feel like a failure. Or your marriage didn't work and you feel like you've failed everybody, including yourself. Or perhaps your business idea didn't work and you've just let down a lot of people and their families. Does that make you a failure? Does that mean you have failed at life? Does that mean your world is about to end? No. No. No.
This too shall pass. Girdle up your loins. Straighten your upper back. Stand fast. You were born a champion, a winner. Champions lose sometimes, this is but a minor defeat. You will get through it. As hard as it seems, you will get through it. You will come out stronger and wiser than you were before. You cannot give up, hang in there, these are your memories, your scars, your passions, your testimony of living. Memories you will keep and cherish forever.
When asked why she spoke so much on failure, J.K. Rowling responded:
"Simply because failure means a stripping away of the inessential, I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.
Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life."
"You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default."
Theodoore Roosevelt once said "Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor souls who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."
It is said that when he [Sophocles,] was told of an impending invasion by the Persians, he tucked his head down and continued to plough. We imagine that to the news bearer his conversation went something like this "Theophilus, Must I too adorn sackcloth and throw ashes in appeal to the gods? If they will war then let be, it is for us to hope and deal with it as it comes. "
Problems can happen at any moment, nothing is guaranteed.
When they come we should see them as learning experiences. We should ask ourselves what can I learn from this that I will value in the future?
Rejection and failure, frustration and setbacks - all these things are fuels to our success. If you've ever been rejected you will know that passion that burns inside.
In one of his speeches Zig ziglar once said "on occasion you've been told that you can't do this or that, or have no skills or talent for this or that. If you overcame those negative comments and did what you were told you couldn't do, you smile at the memory of the satisfaction you gained by proving them all wrong. You didn't listen to what they said and succeeded in spite of and in some cases, because of their doubts of you"
Most success stories we hear validate that most people who "make it big" experience several failures on their way up. Every day is an opportunity to start over, and every failure can be a learning experience that prepares us for success.
Success is not final and failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. ~ Winston Churchill
" Most great people have attained their greatest success just one step after their greatest failure." ~ Napoleon Hill
" Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success." ~ Dale Carnegie
" Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently." ~ Henry Ford
"Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed to an equal or greater benefit." ~ Napoleon Hill
"If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment." ~ Henry David Thoreau