Successful Failures

Prague Leaders Magazine, March 2010

The story goes that, during a lecture, a student asked a successful businessman the usual question: “Can you tell us the key to your success?”

The businessman looked at him and replied: “Young man, having been able to make good decisions has been key to my success.” To that the student replied: “Thank you sir, but how did you manage to make good decisions?”

“Experience,” answered the businessman. “I understand,” said the student. “However, could you tell me which experience allowed you to make good decisions?”

“Very simple,” replied the businessman. “My most valuable experience was acquired by making bad decisions.”

Growing into success is not an easy thing to achieve. We don’t always get into the school we want, or get the promotion we expect. We may be rejected by the girl or guy of our dreams. We might fail to make a sale, or even lose a job.

But while we usually do our best to avoid mistakes, it is impossible to live without making them; and having to deal with failing at something is inevitable. Fortunately, no matter how uncomfortable we might be with our own failures, a lot can be learned from them, and we can also learn from the successful failures of famous people.

When Thomas Edison was a boy, a teacher told him he was “too stupid to learn anything.” And Edison tried more than nine thousand times before successfully creating the first working light bulb. The first business Bill Gates and Paul Allen engaged in together – Traf-O-Data – was a flop. And Michael Jordan missed thousands of shots during his career, and lost 300 games.

We wouldn’t think of any of these men today as failures. Edison held 1,093 U.S. patents and we benefit to this day from many of his inventions. Bill Gates and Paul Allen are two of the wealthiest men in the world and almost everyone connected to a computer uses one or more of their products. As for Michael Jordan, many consider him the greatest basketball player of all time.

These men learned from their experiences. And while we strive for success and do our best to avoid failure, both success and failure provide us with valuable feedback, if we are prepared to take advantage of it.

The Benefits of Success

Success is an indicator of what you like and what you are good at. When you do something successfully, the positive experience imprints itself in your brain as something that gives you pleasure, and you seek to recreate that pleasurable experience. More success leads to more attempts to recreate the experience, and that continuing practice builds skills and competences.

The students who are good at math and receive positive feedback when they arrive at correct answers will enjoy learning math and will get better at math. Those who read and write easily will gain skill in that area, and so on. We label our experiences with respect to their outcomes. When the outcome matches our expectations, we continue behaving and doing what has successfully worked for us in the past.

We use these experiences as a guide to deal with future challenges. By studying and assessing our successes, what we did right, what worked and why it worked, and finding how to repeat it, we develop our strengths and increase our chances for future successes.

But what happens when the outcome doesn’t match our expectations?

Everyone agrees that failure is an inevitable part of exploration and innovation, and most people claim failure as an important element for growth and learning. Search for “learning from failure” on the internet, and you’ll find plenty of banalities about how much we can learn from failure. “We believe in failure.” “We embrace failure.” “We learn our greatest lessons from failure.”

But do we really learn from failures and use that knowledge to reap future success, or is it just wishful thinking?.

Refocusing Failure

Maybe the problem lies in how we perceive failure. Failure makes us feel bad (we feel incompetent) and look bad (we become ashamed and afraid of what people will think of us), and no one likes to feel bad or look bad.

Instead of looking at failure as a lack of success we need to refocus our perception of failure as feedback from our experience and start to appreciate the learning it can bring.

Emerson said, “Life is a series of experiments, the more you make the better.” Edison would certainly have agreed, even as his experiments to produce a light bulb failed to yield the anticipated result for the seven, eight, nine thousand times, and more.

As an attendee at one of my recent Power Lunches said, “A mistake is a failure if you don’t learn from your experience.” If instead of learning from his experiences, Edison had decided to focus on his failing attempts and give up after the first lack of result, he would have never succeeded.

Each failure is a trial in an experiment and an opportunity for growth. Even when a failure bears financial costs, the educational benefits can far outweigh the loss.

The Benefits of Failure

Trial and error are usually the prime means to experience life. Yet we sometimes avoid undertaking the trial because we’re afraid of risking failure. But in failure lie the seeds of success, as failure provides the feedback that points the way to success.

In her June 2008 commencement address at Harvard University, J.K. Rowling, author of the best selling Harry Potter book series, said that for her, “Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself and others 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.”

Rowling asserted that “failure can set you free by teaching you things about yourself that you could not have learned any other way,” and suggested that one should “embrace failure as a chance to know yourself.”

It is time to recognize that the parts of our lives that are not successful – the mistakes and sometimes failures – have just as important a role to play in helping us finding out who we are and what we really want. These setbacks can ultimately lead us to success in our professional and personal lives.

Failing doesn’t equal to being unsuccessful. It only means that our actions didn’t produce the expected results. There is as much to learn from what doesn’t work as it is from what does.

As the great Canadian hockey player Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.”

Do not hesitate to take as many shots as you can and make sure to enjoy the learning experience.