In a world where we covet success, where winning is our goal and the pursuit of excellence seems paramount, can the dreaded concept of failure actually help us reach these dizzying heights, asks Bess Manson.
Truman Capote once said, ‘‘Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavour.’’ Many would say failure, in a world that loves the smell of success, is not such a great taste.
But failure is vital says JK Rowling, whose Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected by 12 publishing houses before it and the next six instalments went on to become the best-selling book series in history.
‘‘Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success. I’ve met people who don’t want to try for fear of failing. Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly,’’ she once said.
The fear of failure didn’t stop American horror writer Stephen King – who has sold hundreds of millions of books – from persevering. By the time he was 14, ‘‘the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing,’’ he says in his book On Writing, a memoir on the craft.
Still, for the great unwashed – those of us who have not reached the heights of success these writers have – a fear of failing can make us afraid of taking risks in whatever our endeavour, says entrepreneur Bill Day, owner and founder of maritime company Seaworks.
Day, who was named Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000, employs 150 people. His company lays fibre optic cables, runs underwater robots and salvages sunken vessels. His work has included managing marine movies for American film director Steven Spielberg and dealings with the oil industry in the Middle East.
‘‘Most people will not become entrepreneurs and one of the more common reasons for this is the fear of failure and, more specifically, fear of the consequences of failure. Lots of people focus on the down side and see what could happen in the worst possible outcome: The bank calls in the debt and I lose the house; I am branded a failure in the NZ business community; my friends and family will see me take a risk and fall flat on my face.’’
Day has had his own share of failures. A stand-out disaster was when he invested in an area of the marine world just before the first global financial crisis completely destroyed the market for the particular services he had banked on.
‘‘I was deeply in debt that I couldn’t service, had to slice Seaworks back to its very core and, worst of all, had to make redundant a great many good people who had played no part in this all going wrong. Personally that is devastating.’’
He says discipline and a focus on the reality of the situation were the only way to deal with his failures.
‘‘You have to act while you still have options because the longer you wait, the more your options become restricted... and if you wait too long then someone else will make all the decisions for you.’’
Failure has made him a better businessman.
Entrepreneurs are useless at assessing the downside of risk and there is nothing like a huge dose of pain to bring that down side into sharp focus, he says. ‘‘It makes you more discerning about what opportunities you will pursue. In the earlier days I was an opportunity slut and would have a crack at anything that came within range. These days I like to think of myself as an opportunity sniper rather than a wielding a shotgun.’’
Despite the agony of analysing your mistakes, Day says you have to acknowledge your failure in order to learn from it. It’s dumb to repeat a mistake, he says. ‘‘It’s even smarter to learn from others’ mistakes so you don’t have to make them in the first place ... but as Warren Buffett [American business magnate, investor, and philanthropist] so eloquently says when asked why he routinely puts fairly old CEOs into his companies, ‘It is difficult to teach young dogs old tricks’.’’
Everyone who does anything in life has had failures. So says Dame Wendy Pye, owner and managing director of Wendy Pye Publishing. ‘‘If they have not had failures, they have not achieved new areas of expertise,’’ she says.
Dame Wendy’s company publishes educational products, including Sunshine Books, which, since its humble beginnings in the classrooms of New Zealand, now has eight offices worldwide. According to the National Business Review, the Wendy Pye Group of companies has now become one of the world’s most successful educational export businesses, selling more than 218 million copies of her books in 20 countries.
But the entrepreneur, who started Sunshine Books after being made redundant in 1985, says she herself has had many failures.
‘‘This is the cost of being a leader, running from the front and trying new things to come up with solutions. This can be expensive and when you invest your own money, you learn fast. Measure up and move out. If you have failed, return to basics and then begin again.’’
Coping with failure makes us stronger, wiser and enables us to learn from our mistakes, she says.
She believes students should study the failures of big companies to show how their mistakes were overcome or how they brought about their demise.
‘‘How many of our MBA students study what went wrong with our major New Zealand companies in their business years? Let’s learn from failure and turn it into a positive outcome. I know it is not PC to discuss this, but we should not be sensitive about learning from one another in a corporate sense, and not repeating the same issues. We will then grow stronger from this experience – and that applies to our politicians as well, who seem to constantly repeat the same mistakes.’’
Associate professor of psychology at Victoria University Paul Jose says people often take the avoid and deny route when it comes to failure.
But this is counterproductive behaviour. We need to be mindful to move beyond failure. ‘‘Don’t run away from the consequences of disappointment or failure. The average response is to avoid or deny, but to be mindful is to be aware of the feelings you are having – shame, embarrassment, anger – and not let these feelings rule your life. Recognise the emotion and don’t disown them.’’
Becoming aware makes it less likely you will make the same mistake again, he says.
Jose, who has done research into ‘‘learned helplessness’’, says most highly successful people have failed time and time again before they find success. ‘‘Thomas Edison failed 999 times before he succeeded. He treasured and valued the fact that he failed because that’s why he succeeded.
‘‘My own life is deeper, richer, more complicated and more real because I have failed at things in my life.’’
Our pursuit of excellence in the Western world is a hindrance to success, Jose adds.
‘‘There’s this idea that people should be magically excellent at something with the minimum amount of work. In Asian societies there’s a different message. It’s all about striving to learn and get better at something so you can achieve.
‘‘There are two ways to look at failure: you can say ‘I am never going to be good at this or that and therefore I’ll avoid it’, or you can say ‘I have not learned enough yet’.
‘‘Embrace your failure. Value failure. It’s telling you something important – you need to keep learning.’’
John Murdoch, principal of Wellington’s Taita College since August 2009, says his school has taken on failure, dissected it, studied it, turned it inside out and then transformed it into success.
Back in 2009-2010, the school’s NCEA pass rate was 30-40 per cent. All students in the decile 3 school who failed were interviewed about their learning experience. They talked about being unmotivated, being hindered by social issues, they couldn’t see the relevance in the material, they were bored by the teaching.
The school set about making changes to the delivery of their lessons, the organisation of the school – such as timetables and having smaller form classes – among many other changes.
In essence, the failings in the students made the school look at its own failures.
‘‘It was a really important self-reflection for us [as teachers] to respond to what students were saying.’’
In the two years since changes were made in the school’s teaching, assessing and organisation, the NCEA pass rate has leapt to 80-90 per cent.
We ignore failure at our peril.
‘‘A person’s view of learning influences their view of failure,’’ Murdoch says. ‘‘Learning is messy, sticky and uncomfortable ... If this is the view of learning, then failure is critical to learning.’’
Mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka, who has worked with the All Blacks, Silver Ferns and Black Caps, says he has never met a high-performance athlete who has not experienced failure at some point of their career.
Failure, he says, is necessary for success.
Great performances usually come from athletes who are uncomfortable, on edge, athletes who have experienced some failure, Enoka says. ‘‘The All Blacks played better in the 2011 World Cup because of their failure in 2007. Failure makes you realise how much you want something. It makes you realise how much you are prepared to put in to succeed.’’
In New Zealand there’s a high degree of scrutiny by the public of high-performance athletes.
‘‘New Zealanders love a gutsy win and they don’t tolerate a win that is clumsy, or wimpy losses.’’
So whether you win or lose, Enoka encourages athletes to go back and scrutinise their performance.
If they lost, he suggests they don’t listen to talkback radio – ‘‘they’ll go into overwhelm’’ – and advises them not get caught up in the emotion.
‘‘They have to divorce themselves from the emotion and look at what happened in the game, look at what they can do better, look at the facts and what contributed to their loss.’’
Enoka, who has been with All Blacks management for 14 years, says there are days in an athlete’s career when fear and faith collide.
‘‘Fear can overwhelm but faith has to prevail.’’
HOW TO DEAL WITH FAILURE
*Acknowledge the pain and disappointment. Don’t try to hide it from yourself. Often people, in an effort to mute the intensity of the emotional reaction, will avoid the same situation in the future or deny that it ever happened. ‘‘Regardless of the pain, one should first be aware of what happened. Self-knowledge is essential in order to achieve lasting improvements in one’s life,’’ says Paul Jose an associate professor of psychology at Victoria University.
*Don’t catastrophise it. One should accept the reality of the failure, but don’t generalise it to one’s whole life. In other words, if someone made a hash of one romantic relationship, that doesn’t mean that he/she is incapable of finding happiness with someone. However, if a pattern becomes apparent, this can be a useful clue about what a person is repeatedly doing.
*After the pain and disappointment fades, approach the information anew with an intent to learn from it. ‘‘What did I do wrong in this relationship? What can I change and do differently/better next time?’’
*The memory of the pain and disappointment can be used fruitfully in a couple of ways. First, it should spur us to avoid feeling those emotions again. Secondly, the redemption script that we like so much in movies (a downtrodden, unsuccessful person perseveres and eventually achieves a triumphant success) can apply to our real lives. Imagine how happy one will be when one finally succeeds.
*Find something to believe in, someone to believe in and someone who believes in you, mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka says.
*Consume yourself in process-oriented thinking as opposed to outcome-oriented thinking. Face what is, redesign what it was, strengthen what you are good at.
Henry Ford went broke five times before he founded the Ford Motor Company and became one of the richest people in the world.
Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor for lack of ideas. He also went bankrupt several times before he and his brother co-founded Walt Disney Productions, one of the best-known motion picture production companies in the world. Disney’s revenue last year was US$45 billion.
Albert Einstein’s teacher described him as ‘‘mentally slow, unsociable and adrift forever in his foolish dreams’’. He was expelled and refused admittance to Zurich Polytechnic School. The University of Bern turned down his PhD dissertation as being irrelevant and fanciful. In 1921, Einstein received the Nobel Prize in Physics.
Star Wars was rejected by every movie studio in Hollywood before 20th-Century Fox finally produced it. It went on to be one of the largest grossing movies in film history.
Louis Pasteur was only a mediocre pupil in undergraduate studies and ranked 15 out of 22 in chemistry. Among his many later accomplishments, Pasteur created the first vaccines for rabies and anthrax, and invented pasteurisation.
Music mogul Simon Cowell’s record company went bust before he picked himself up and forged on, creating reality show big hitters such as Pop Idol, The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and American Idol.
After Fred Astaire’s first screen test, the memo from the testing director of MGM said, ‘‘Can’t act! Slightly bald! Can dance a little!’’ Astaire – whose stellar stage, film and television career spanned 76 years – kept that memo over the fireplace in his Beverly Hills home.
Margaret Mitchell’s classic Gone with the Wind was turned down by more than 25 publishers. Mitchell won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for the bestseller which has sold tens of millions of copies.
In 1954, the manager of the Grand Ole Opry – a weekly country music stage concert in Nashville – Tennessee – fired Elvis Presley after one performance. He told the future king of rock’n’roll, ‘‘You ain’t goin’ nowhere... son. You ought to go back to drivin’ a truck.’’
Dr. Seuss’ first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street, was rejected by 27 publishers. The 28th publisher, Vanguard Press, sold six million copies of the book.