The Value of Failing
Have you ever failed at anything? How did you feel about that experience? Did it make you want to give up? If so, you need to adjust the way you look at failure. As pointed out by Henry Petroski, professor of engineering and history at Duke University, “The biggest misperception people have about failure is that it is all bad.”
Albert Einstein once said, “You never fail until you stop trying.”
If you look at the lives of many of America’s heroes, you will find that they were unsuccessful in their earlier years. The biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson are classic examples of this.
Lincoln is unquestionably one of the greatest leaders this country has ever had; however, prior to being elected president in 1860, he had a number of failures, including losing his job, failing in business, losing eight campaigns for public ofﬁce, and suffering numerous rejections by colleagues and constituents.
While Edison was attempting to create the electric light bulb and experiment after experiment was unsuccessful, someone called him a failure. He retorted, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
The difference between the people who accomplish things in their lives and those who see unsuccessful attempts at a task as failure is that the first group does not forget the lessons learned in their formative years.
A young child fails many times before he accomplishes the task of locomotion. The child first scoots, then crawls, then walks and even in the process of learning to walk, the child falls many times before he learns to walk.
As parents, we do not discourage a child from attempting to walk just because he or she falls. We know that eventually the child will gain the skills necessary to accomplish the task.
Somewhere along the line, however, many people began to view “failure” as all bad. They forget the lessons learned from early childhood about not giving up. We are all going to fail at some time in our life. Making mistakes is a part of the process.
Theodore Roosevelt said, “The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.” Joseph Conrad said, “It’s only those who do nothing that make no mistakes.”
We need to realize that failing at something does not make us a failure unless we give up.
Great leaders understand that failure is symbiotic with learning. That is what caused Michael Jordan to say, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. 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.”
In his article, Failing Your Way to Business Success, entrepreneur, investor and sales strategist, Graham Dockrill, points out:
You will find that the most successful people in life have failed the most times. If you welcome failure as a guide and teacher, you’re more likely to find your way to success. Secondly, when you and your business are driven by discovery, you take a step forward, gather feedback and adapt.
The things that we get from failure that give it value are:
Failure Builds Character – There is a lesson to be learned from everything that happens to us and that includes failing. One of the greatest beneﬁt earned from failure is strength of character. Failure hurts. It causes us to reexamine our action. If life were perfect and every endeavor ended in success, we would not learn as much – failure teaches us more about ourselves and builds character better than success ever could.
Failure Provides Learning Opportunities – Early educational reformer John Dewey said it best: “Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.”
As Edison’s quote about “finding 10,000 ways that won’t work” demonstrates, there is value in examining why we were not successful in our attempts to do something. In an earlier column I mentioned Fred Rangel telling me about a situation which I do not recall. He said that I looked at him and said, “Okay, you paid your tuition. What did you learn?” Every failure should be viewed as an opportunity to learn.
I believe we waste a golden opportunity when we do not learn from our failures.
Failure Teaches Resiliency and Persistency – We need to remember the lessons of childhood when we did not know the meaning of failure and kept on trying until we learned to walk. As Thomas A. Edison emphasized “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” That is a valuable lesson to learn.
Rather than give up when he did not make the Laney high school basketball team’s varsity squad, Michael Jordan dedicated himself to becoming a better player.
Failure Promotes Growth – When our failures lead to know-ledge and persistence we grow. We reach deeper meanings and understandings about ourselves and our organizations and why we do the things we do. This helps us to reflect and put things into perspective and develop meaning from painful situations. Growth allows us to eliminate the errors and create streamlined processes in our organization’s culture.
My favorite philosopher (Anonymous) is quoted as saying, “Failure is life’s great teacher; it is nature’s chisel that chips away at all the excess, stripping down egos as it molds and shapes us through divine intentions.”
Since we know everyone fails at something and since failure builds our character, provides learning opportunities, teaches resiliency and persistency, and promotes growth, why should we fear it.
If our “failures” lead to learning a better way of doing something, was the experience really a failure or an opportunity to learn a better way of doing it?
As Winston Churchill has pointed out, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”
That is why I now say about myself, “I have never failed at anything; but I have certainly had a tremendous number of never-to-be-repeated learning experiences.”
If you want to be a great leader, go out and fail your way to success.