The Fortune of Failure: Why It’s Necessary to Our Success

Post by Tim Eyre

“You can’t have any successes unless you can accept failure.”

The line is from film director George Cukor, acknowledging a timeless truth. Nothing exists in a vacuum.

Would you recognize good if there were no evil?

Success and failure are not opposites. Rather, failure is a component of success. Let’s say you have an idea on how to increase your business or earn recognition in your field. You put it into practice and are discouraged when the results are not what you had hoped.

Do you give up or do you learn from your early attempts?

The most important thing about “failure” is that it doesn’t describe a person. We need to redefine “failure” so it’s not a measure of inadequacy but a necessary step on the road to success.  Indeed, it would be hard to recognize success unless you had tried other methods and found them lacking.

Most of us find a few dead ends before we stumble upon the path to the top; often we are a little bruised and battered by the time we do find it.

We’ve earned those scars, and we need to be proud of them; they are badges that measure our perseverance and determination. Some failures are in fact brilliant successes. The sticky note, super glue and even penicillin would not be around if some brilliant scientists hadn’t “failed.” All the more reason not to define failure as a flaw.

Most of the time, of course, our “failures” don’t lead to astonishing new products, but they do serve to teach us something. If we can accept those lessons without allowing ourselves to be devastated by them, we can move forward.

“Invention does not consist of creating out of void, but out of chaos.”

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the English novelist remembered primarily for her classic Gothic novel Frankenstein, made a crucial point – many of us fear chaos. We want things orderly, even if our methods bring us limited results. The idea of embracing the chaos, in whatever form that presents itself, is an alien one. But leaving the safety and comfort of the familiar – the nest, as it were – is a part of growth.

Some years ago, a young writer grew discouraged at the number of rejection slips he was receiving. He felt like a failure and wondered if he was wasting his time trying to write for a living.

As he added the latest letters to the bulging file in his attic-turned-office, he stared at the peaked ceiling. On the spur of the moment, he decided to take the letters out of the file, where they mocked him on a daily basis, and display them by tacking them to the bare walls and ceiling.

Highly visible, the letters became a spur. As he looked around and saw plenty of open space remaining, he determined to fill that space as quickly as he could. As a result, he sent out even more query letters. Although he didn’t see it at the time, what he was doing was embracing the chaos and turning his failures into valuable steps toward success. By increasing the number of pitches he made to editors, he increased his odds, and soon a few acceptance letters turned up in the mail. He even sold a piece about his wall of rejection to a writing magazine! That writer had learned a lesson that the famous inventor Thomas Edison once expressed:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Think about what that would mean to your own struggle on a daily basis! Every day, every dead end, every “failure,” is valuable, as long as you keep trying – you keep persisting. Edison reminds us that when we don’t give up, two things happen:

  1. We will have more failures, as some of our attempts go astray.
  2. We will have more success, because we continue to learn what doesn’t work.

They sound contradictory, but they go hand-in-hand.  Nineteenth-century American jurist William Strong was expressing the same idea when he said,

“The only time you don’t fail is the last time you try anything—and it works.”

It is a more elegant way of expressing that old parental adage that drove many kids up a wall:

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

We see this all the time in our daily lives. Not long ago I was at a local barbecue, and complimented one of my neighbors on her fabulous dessert. She smiled and offered me a second piece. Her husband, sitting nearby, chuckled.

“She wasn’t born knowing how to do this,” he said. “When we first got married, all her baked potatoes used to explode in the oven!”

In other words, she persevered and over time her cooking disasters turned to triumphs.  The principle applies whether the scene is domestic, academic or in an inventor’s garage. The tougher the field, the more important the lesson. People in the entertainment industry know a lot about what we call failure. The odds are against them starting from Day 1.

  • They go to many auditions without landing a role.
  • They work at dead-end jobs while they wait for their big break.
  • There are always younger talents trying to replace them.

So they have something to teach us all about perseverance and success.

The actress Mary Pickford put it this way:

“Supposing you have tried and failed again and again. You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call ‘failure’ is not the falling down, but the staying down.”

Mickey Rooney was more succinct: “You always pass failure on your way to success.”

Go out there and make mistakes.  It’s part of your journey.  Enjoy it!

1 Comment

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