Failure. Mistake. Miscalculation.
These words have a nasty reputation, most especially when mixed with growth-focused business and professional leadership. According to conventional wisdom, failure is simply the absence of success. So if success is the ultimate goal, then failure, mistakes, and miscalculations should be defined as wholly negative and avoided at all costs.
But what if I told you there was value to your failures — value you can’t find anywhere else? What if I told you that failure wasn’t simply a potential detour on the way to your final destination, but rather an essential part of your journey? In my work with nascent Nigerian organizations and global business leaders, I have never encountered any success that was achieved without failure. Every leader who has accomplished great things has endured significant setbacks, but popular thinking would have us remember only the final triumph or most lasting success. Unfortunately, this paints an incomplete picture of what it means to be successful by ignoring every failure and mistake that was absolutely critical to the process.
For a more complete picture of your victories, you need to better understand the fruits of your failures. Accomplishing this shift in perspective demands fundamental changes, such as those found within the seven successful ways of looking at every loss.
1. Failure is an integral part of any success.
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison
Along with Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison is perhaps the most recognized and successful inventor in history. Edison held over 1,000 patents, including the electric light bulb, the phonograph, and the Edison laboratory. Yet he was no stranger to failure. Why? Because he welcomed it.
From an early age, most of us are encouraged to view failure as something completely negative — demerits and dismal grades. As such, we are taught to avoid it and gain nothing from its presence and recurrence. However, the most successful leaders see failure as an inevitable part of the process — a natural occurrence on the road to success and prosperity. After all, each failure brings you one step closer to your goal, as you now know one way NOT to achieve it!
2. Failure is an event — never a person.
“You can’t let your failures define you. You have to let your failures teach you.” – Barack Obama
In the 2000 election for Illinois’ 1st congressional district representative, Barack Obama lost to incumbent Bobby Rush, who was considered vulnerable and had just undergone a crushing defeat in a 1999 mayoral race. Obama lost by a 2-to-1 margin and garnered only 31% of all votes. By and large, it was considered a shocking and soul-crushing defeat. Eight years later, Senator Obama was elected president.
A failure is an event — never a person. When you label yourself a “failure,” you are allowing your entire identity to be consumed by a single event or series of events. This is both unacceptable and illogical. If you fail an exam in school, that is an event — it is simply something that happened. An event is momentary and fleeting. An event is not who you are, but rather it is what you did. Instead of defining themselves by singular successes and failures, authentic leaders define themselves by more permanent qualities: their character, their principles, and their long-term goals.
3. Failure is a gateway to tacit knowledge.
“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” – Henry T. Ford
In 1971, Ford introduced the Pinto, a subcompact sedan whose fiery failure is so notorious that it is still studied in Business Ethics courses to this day. The car’s demise did a lot of damage to Ford’s reputation and cost the company a fortune in legal damages. Not surprisingly, the next Ford car to replace the Pinto (the UK-sold Ford Escort) learned valuable lessons from its predecessor and underwent much more extensive development. The result? The best-selling family car in Great Britain throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Some knowledge is “explicit knowledge,” which is straightforward and can be easily communicated in books and presentations. However, failures provide us with “tacit knowledge,” which is not as easily communicated. Tacit knowledge is gained through experience, and its lessons can often only be learned through trial and error — through both failure and success.
4. Failure shapes your values and character.
“What is defeat? Nothing but education.” – Wendell Phillips, American abolitionist
The first leaders of the abolitionist movement in the United States rose to power in the 1830s with radical fervor. Still, despite the movement’s previous success ending slavery in Great Britain, it would take over four decades before the Thirteenth Amendment was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln. From there, this very same patience and perseverance would endure the many ups and downs that eventually lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a symbolic “end” to racial discrimination over 130 years later.
If everything works perfectly the first time you attempt it, how will you develop the capacity to cope with failure, endure challenges, and grow from your mistakes? Failure gives you grit. It gives you resilience. Failure shapes your values and molds your character to give you the capacity to weather storms and overcome adversity. What’s the result? Even greater success.
5. Failure makes your experience invaluable.
“The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.” – Chinese proverb
Behind every masterpiece, there is a pile of discarded papers. Behind every roaring triumph, there is a long road littered with failures. Behind every successful leader, there are the many mistakes and miscalculations that sharpened their skills and gave birth to their wisdom.
Be willing to share the knowledge you have gained from all your experimentation. Share the values that were made yours by experiencing failure and enduring hardship. There is mentorship to be found in your failures. There is someone somewhere who needs to learn your exact lesson, and you’ll be saving them from making the same mistake!
6. Failure is just a small part of your much larger goal.
“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” – Robert F. Kennedy
Robert F. Kennedy was one of the nation’s most powerful attorneys general. He was a tireless activist devoted to securing more rights for Black Americans, lifting up underprivileged children, and putting an end to the Vietnam War. Even for those on the other side of politics, Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign was an undeniable force of nature with passion and positivity at its core. In June of that year, Robert Kennedy was shot dead in California, assassinated just five years after his older brother. Still, their legacy endures.
How do you overcome the pain of failure that stops so many from trying again? When there is great joy and justice to be won, a single failure, no matter how painful, cannot sully the success that awaits. In their deaths, John and Robert Kennedy helped inspire a nation toward greater peace and equality. In your imagination, travel into the future, and see the joy that will come when your hardwon goals are finally accomplished!
7. Every failure is an opportunity to succeed.
“Don’t fear failure — not failure, but low aim is the crime. In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail.” – Bruce Lee
In 1993, Joe Carter was playing for the Toronto Blue Jays — an unremarkable right fielder with an unremarkable batting average. Then, on October 23rd in what would be the final inning of the World Series, Joe hit a three-run homerun to stun the crowd and win the championship. In a single moment, he had achieved immortality. How? By showing up to the plate.
If you want to double your successes, you just need to double your failures. How do you do that? By trying more. Attempting more. Life is cause and effect, and every attempt you make opens you up to success — even when that success doesn’t come. So, when you join the club of people that can try again, and again, and again, your success is inevitable!
Are you ready to tap into the unique value of your mistakes and miscalculations? Your failures are bearing fruit every day, so it’s time to start benefiting from their bounty. In order to turn your failures into fuel for future success, you must start with a shift in perspective. You must start by finding more successful ways of looking at your loss and transforming its shortcomings into wisdom and motivation.
Written by Dr. Sam Adeyemi.
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