At some point, we all have been confronted to failure, whether at school, in sports, in business and/or in our personal life. The way we are able to deal with it is a key differentiator for upcoming successes, or lack thereof. In this post, I am sharing a few thoughts on the topic.
June 2021. The school year is coming to an end. Some students succeeded, others will have additional exam(s) in September and others will have to start their year over. On the other hand, the 2020 European Football Championship (postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19 outbreak) is in full swing and the first teams have been eliminated. In both cases, different results, different thoughts, different emotions.
In his book « LES VERTUS DE L’ECHEC » (The virtues of failure, version only available in French for now), CHARLES PEPIN discusses notably how failure can help understand better, learn faster, open new avenues, strengthen one’s character, build humility, experience real life and reinvent ourselves. Let’s go further with a few concrete examples.
Understanding better through failure
THOMAS EDISON, who invented the incandescent lamp, tried thousands of times to bring a tungsten filament, in a bulb filled with gas, to incandescence. He persevered because he saw each attempt as a successful try helping him getting closer to the solution.
ALBERT EINSTEIN also said that « a very large series of successes does not prove any truth, when the failure of a single experimental verification proves that it is false ».
Within the Silicone Valley, there is an entrepreneur’s mantra saying « fail fast, learn fast« . It even seems that those who failed early, and learn from that, will succeed better and faster than those who have had a smooth journey.
RAFAEL NADAL, the famous Spanish tennis player who won 20 Grand Slam titles, lost the 1999 world championship versus RICHARD GASQUET, the French rising star at that time. Yet, NADAL will win the next 14 matches against him whereas GASQUET has not won any Grand Slam title yet. What if NADAL early failures speed up his learning ? What if GASQUET lack of early losses impaired his future resilience ?
And what about the students who did not fail before entering the job market ? Will they miss the sense of resilience and reactivity in a constantly evolving world ?
Opening new avenues thanks to failure
Failure is often seen as a door that closes. What if it was a window that opens ? Thus, the progress of Medicine are mainly linked to a better understanding of the diseases.
Strengthening one’s character
From CHARLES DE GAULLE to ABRAHAM LINCOLN, some great destinies have been shaped in repetitive failures.
The latter lost his job in 1832, was defeated for state legislature in 1832, failed in business in 1833, was elected to state legislature in 1834, lost his Sweetheart who died in 1835, had nervous breakdown in 1836, was defeated for Speaker in 1838, was defeated for nomination for Congress in 1843, was elected to Congress in 1846, lost renomination in 1848, was rejected for land officer in 1849, was defeated for U.S. Senate in 1854, was defeated for nomination for Vice President in 1856, again defeated for U.S. Senate in 1858. And was finally elected President in 1860.
It is to him that we owe the abolition of slavery. To that aim, he had to give a lot of energy to defeat the numerous resistances. What if the sum of his previous failures had prepared him to that ultimate victory that made him part of History ?
Building humility through failure
When STEVE JOBS was forced to leave Apple in 1985, he was an arrogant individual who did not listen to anyone and managed through humiliation. In his 2005 speech at Stanford University, JOBS said that « it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life. »
Experiencing real life
MARC AURELE wrote « Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can change, and the wisdom to know the difference between both. » Even though this makes sense, we tend to believe that our willingness can make everything possible. When we do our best, and yet fail, we cannot deny that not everything depends on us in real life. This awareness is difficult to integrate if we do not fail.
RAY CHARLES is a another great example. He lost his eyesight at 7 and his mother at 15. Previously he saw his brother drown. As he said, « I had the choice, stand on a street corner with a white cane and a seille, or do everything to become a musician ». « What depends on you is to accept or not what does not depend on you » as wrote EPICTETE. RAY accepted his blindness. He expressed his genius with songs such as HIT THE ROAD JACK and GEORGIA ON MY MIND.
Reinventing ourselves through failure
Our failures do not always make us wiser, humbler or stronger. Sometimes it makes us simply available for something new and favor a change of path that will lead to more happiness.
If CHARLES DARWIN did not fail his medical and theological studies, he would not have embarked on his long journey and hence discovered his evolutionary theory.
If J.K. ROWLING did not experienced sentimental and professional failure, she would not have come to depression and start writing the Harry Potter saga. Afterwards, her first book got rejected a dozen of times before being accepted. What she initially saw as a failure actually redirected her towards her success.
One key point is to understand that failing is not being a failure. Daring to do something new is actually to dare to fail. By the way, the failure of our educational system lies most probably in the fact that failure is not promoted or even allowed. On the contrary, countries such as Finland have reach much better results. Their pedagogy indeed adapts to the learning pace of each student. As a consequence, Finland is one of the most innovative countries in the world.
Another critical aspect is that more successful countries do insist on strengths instead of weaknesses. Isn’t indeed better to capitalize on our strengths, or not to have any weaknesses ?
Failures can definitely be gifts, if we can receive them as such, as praised by RUDYARD KIPLING in his famous poem « If ».
If (Rudyard Kipling)
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss[es];
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your [or our] turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on [to it] when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count [on you,] with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
Did you fail recently ? Reach out to me and we will design an individualized success plan together.