Failure: Gateway to Success

Donald NorfolkIt’s impossible to lead a life devoid of disasters and set backs. Most of the world’s successful people have had times when they’ve had good reason to consider themselves to be failures. That was the experience of William James, who said: ‘Take the happiest man, the one most envied in the world, and in nine cases out of ten his inmost consciousness is one of failure.’ It isn’t a sin to fail; the real crime is to a failure to attempt.  There was an American who failed in business in ’31 and was defeated in politics the following year. Two years later he suffered another business disaster. Soon after, he suffered a nervous breakdown. When he recovered, he had the nerve to make an unsuccessful bid to become a US congressman. The man with that chequered past was Abraham Lincoln, who to begin with might have been written off as one of life’s born losers, but who had the perseverance to shrug off his early reverses and become one of America’s greatest Presidents. His story provides living testimony to the fact that men and women are defeated only when they stop trying.

Many people fail, not through a dearth of talent, but from a lack of perseverance. Frederick Forsyth was fifty-three before he got his first book published. The book – The Day of the Jackal – was based on his experiences as a young pilot, and was turned down by nineteen publishers before it was finally accepted and went on to sell fifty million copies. J.K. Rowling suffered a similar fate. Her first novel – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – was rejected by a dozen publishers before it finally found a home. Six books later her fortune was estimated at £560 million. Too many fail because they give up too soon. They’re held back by the threat of humiliation and painful disappointment, rather than driven forward by the anticipation of success and its attendant pleasure and satisfaction. This negative mind set is an incapacitating habit, which can be changed.

You’re on the road to success if you realise that failure is at worst a temporary distraction, and at the best an invaluable learning experience. You’re bound to have the occasional lapse if you’re going through a period of change, or are trying to correct a long established negative habit. To inventors and engineers there’s no such thing as failure – only feedback. In his drive to create an effective light bulb Edison carried out over a thousand unsuccessful experiments. When asked if he wasn’t discouraged by all these failures, and tempted to give up, he replied: ‘Those were steps on the way. In each attempt I was successful in finding a way not to create a light bulb. I was always eager to learn, even from my mistakes.’

Mistakes can be stepping stones on the road to success, only if we learn the lessons they teach. This was the moral to be drawn from research carried out at the University of Colorado’s Business School. The team made a study of space flight mishaps, where accidents are high profile events and difficult to conceal. At one launch a piece of insulation broke off a space shuttle and caused minor damage to one of the booster rockets. Since this didn’t impede the mission, the incident was forgotten and little was done by way of a follow-up investigation. The same thing happened on the next launch, but this time the piece of broken insulation caused catastrophic damage which killed all seven members of the crew. This brought about the cancellation of subsequent flights, and a major investigation which reduced the risk of future calamities by introducing twenty-nine structural changes. The research showed that a business or individual which suffers a major set-back performs much better in the long run than those who have a smoother passage. The major reason, they suggested in their report, was that ‘the knowledge gained from success was often fleeting while knowledge from failure stuck around for years.’  One we’ve burnt our fingers in the fire, we’re far less likely to do it again.

So don’t be too hard on yourself. Accept that it’s human to err. Permit yourself to have the occasional off-day, when you under perform and make the odd mistake. If you have long term goals, you won’t be deterred by these short term failures. It’s not what happens to us in life that matters; it’s how we respond. Dr Steve Peters, a British clinical psychiatrist, once worked with patients with severe personality disorders but is now in great demand as a sport’s coach. It was his mental training which gave the British cycling team the positive outlook which enabled them to sweep the gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. He’s found that one of the major handicaps that athletes face is ‘fear of failure’.  Hamstrung by this trepidation, they become so tense and anxious, not wanting to let people down, that they don’t give of their best. This is an outlook which can be changed, according to Peters, who insists that anyone can control their mind. ‘You don’t have to let it lead you. You can reconstruct your personality and tap into the strengths within your own brain.’    In this he is merely confirming the wisdom of the ages, and providing backing for the adage of Master Kung, better known in the West as Confucius: ‘Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.’

© Donald Norfolk 2010

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