Embracing Failure

November 12, 2022

The road to success is paved with failure. You cannot succeed if you don’t fail along the way and are able to learn from those setbacks. The fact is no one succeeds unless they first embrace failure, learn from it, and try again and again.

Looking back over my career, I recall failures big and small that undermined my confidence and stalled my ability to get a job and get promoted more quickly. Some of these failures I blamed on other people, some I attributed to circumstances beyond my control. Ultimately, I failed to accept my responsibility for what happened and what I could do differently next time by learning from the experience.

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career,” said Michael Jordan. “I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Choose any successful person—no matter the field—and I suspect they can recount a series of obstacles that they needed to overcome before they reached their goals. Here are a few famous failures.

  • Albert Einstein – Failed to speak until age 4; at age 16, he failed to be admitted into the Swiss Federal Polytechnic school; graduated from college but struggled in classes so much that he considered dropping out; sold insurance door to door for two years before joining the patent office examining applications for various devices. Finally, he went on to develop the fundamental core laws governing physics, won the Nobel Prize and created the beginnings of quantum theory.
  • J.K. Rowling – At 17 she failed to be accepted at Oxford University; at 25 her mother died of Multiple Sclerosis, leaving her extremely distraught and upset; she found work with Amnesty International and then taught English; after the breakup of a difficult marriage with a young child at the age of 38, she moved in with her sister; diagnosed as clinically depressed and suicidal yet she completed the manuscript for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. After getting rejected by the 12 major publishing houses, a small literary house took a chance on the book, which led Rowling to be the first author to become a billionaire through book writing.  
  • Oprah Winfrey – As a young child living with her mother and younger sister, she was sexually molested by an uncle, cousin and a family friend; she ran away at 13, became pregnant at 14 and give birth prematurely to a child who died soon after birth; after a short stint as co-anchor for a news organization in Baltimore, she was fired for being “unfit for television.” At 29 she was hired at AM Chicago, a show that ultimately became the Oprah Winfrey Show, and is now a world-famous multi-billionaire.
  • Abraham Lincoln – At age 23 he lost his job, ran for the state legislature and lost; at age 26 the love of his life died; at 29 he lost his bid to become Speaker in the Illinois House of Representatives; at 39 he failed in his bid to become Commissioner of the General Land Office in D.C.; ten years later he failed to win a seat as a U.S. Senator. Then, at the age of 52, he was elected President of the United States and became one of the most famous failures to ever hold the high office in the United States. 

Failure is not the opposite of success, but an essential step towards it. Embrace your failure as it provides the vital information necessary for learning to succeed. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you reach success.

Failing all the way to Success

October 7, 2012

“Your attitude towards failure determines your altitude after failure.” – John C. Maxwell

When he was just seven-years-old his family was forced to move out of their home and off their farm. Like other boys, he was expected to work to help support the family. When he turned nine, his mother died.

At the age of 22, the company he worked for went bankrupt and he lost his job. At 23, he ran for state legislature against 12 other candidates. He came in eighth.

At 24, he borrowed money to start a business with a friend. By the end of that first year, the business failed and local authorities took his possessions in order to pay off his debt. His partner soon died, and he assumed his partner’s share of debt as well.

When he turned 25, he ran for state legislature again. This time he won.

At 26, he was engaged to be married, but his fiancée died before the wedding. The next year he plunged into a deep depression and suffered a nervous breakdown.

At 29, he sought out to become speaker of the state legislature. He was defeated.

When he turned 34, he campaigned for a U.S. congressional seat. And he lost. The next year he ran for Congress again and this time he won.

At the age of 39 when his term ended, he was out of a job as his party had a one-term-limit rule.

The next year he tried to get a job as commissioner of the General Land Office, but he was denied. At 45, he campaigned for the U.S. Senate and lost by six electoral votes.

When he turned 47, he was one of the contenders for the vice-presidential nomination at his party’s national convention. He lost. At 49, he ran again for the same U.S. Senate seat a second time. He lost again.

Two years later, at the age of 51, after a lifetime of failure, disappointment, and loss, Abraham Lincoln was elected the sixteenth president of the United States.

Given his leadership in presiding over and ending the Civil War, preserving the Union, ending slavery, and rededicating our nation to the ideals of equality, liberty, and democracy, you could argue he was our most successful president.

This story, taken from Paul Smith’s Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire, is steeped in challenges far beyond what most of us ever have to endure.

The point of this and other stories where characters demonstrate unbelievable resilience and perseverance is that achieving success may very well require setbacks and failures. And it is often only through how we react to our failures that determine whether we can ultimately go on to be successful.

Without failing, you’re not living. Here’s a video that provides a look at many famous failures.

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career and I’ve lost almost 300 games,” said Michael Jordan, arguably the best basketball player of all time and someone who failed regularly. “Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

The great inventor Thomas Edison was reported to have performed some 9,000 experiments before coming up with a successful version of the light bulb.

And when things go wrong there is typically enormous opportunity for learning. There is the need to honestly appraise what happened, identify who was responsible, to own what was our own part, and then to find creative and sustainable solutions so that it doesn’t happen again. This is as true for individuals as it is for organizations.

It has often been said that if you’re not learning from your failures, you are very likely repeating them.

“The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure,” says John C. Maxwell, author of Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success.

Clearly without the experience of failing, it is hard to know how to succeed. It’s as if that taste of disappointment enables us to persevere.

Lincoln’s persistence to succeed despite a lifetime of failure, disappointment and loss helped him reach the highest office in the land and a lasting legacy of one the greatest leaders of our country.

Make it a habit to embrace your failures as learning opportunities that enable you to reach your successes.