The Other F Word: How failure can be the key to your success

Published Various 2005

Thomas Edison has done it. Naomi Watts has joked about it. Sylvester Stallone mastered it. Even Abraham Lincoln earned a name for himself for it. But this is not something that's reserved for a chosen few. We have all experienced it. In fact, most of us experience it fairly frequently. Some more than others. It's known as the F word. No, not that word. The other F word. 


Hang on, stay with me. It's not that bad, I promise. The thing is, we all experience it from time to time but what I can't understand is why isn't anyone talking about it? We're so afraid to mention the big F word as if we might jinx ourselves with it, avoiding anything or anyone that looks like they might have been struck with the failure stick. Except for those mega-successful, multi-millionaire types who, rather than having a problem with failure, seem to revel in it.

Sylvester Stallone wanted desperately to be a star. He knocked on many doors only to be told he couldn't speak well enough to be an actor. No agent would represent him. So he decided to write his own film and play the leading character. Once again he started knocking on doors. And one by one, the movie houses turned him down. Determined to get his movie made, Stallone persisted until finally a studio agreed to buy the script. The condition was that Stallone would not act in it. The studio offered him more money than he'd made in his entire career. He turned them down. After years of persistence someone finally said 'yes' and agreed to make the movie. And so began the phenomenal success of Rocky.

And another famous example: We know Thomas Edison as the inventor of the light bulb. This invention changed our world. What most of us don't know is that Edison made over ten thousands attempts before he actually came up with the correct solution for. It was the ten thousand 'failures' that enabled that one successful attempt to be possible. And so there was electric light!

And then there are the 'overnight' successes. When singer Jessica Simpson first auditioned for a spot with The Mickey Mouse Club, the launching pad for most teen pop musical careers, the producers opted to go with another star-in-the-making by the name of Britney Spears. Simpson was devastated. When most of us would have given up, Simpson shrugged it off and kept going. Actress Naomi Watts almost threw in her acting career after 15 years of playing second choice for leading roles. She is now one of the most successful Australian actresses in Hollywood.

Most successful people have first made dozens, hundreds, sometimes even thousands of attempts before finally hitting the jackpot. Truly successful people don't see failure the way the majority of people see it. Nor do they attach the experience to themselves and see failure as a character flaw. Rather they see failure as opportunity to improve. If something doesn't work it simply means that there must be another way. A better way. As training guru Dale Carnegie once put it, 'The successful man will profit from his mistakes and try again in a different way.?

A friend of mine recently sold his company for a figure in the tens of millions. Yet this was after years of starting companies that resulted in a lot of money lost, and not just his money. It would have been very easy for my friend to give up after the collapse of his first business and the humiliation of having to face his many unhappy investors. But that's not how successful people work. They get up and start again. And they don't stop getting up and starting again, even after they've succeeeded. My friend is now on his way to selling his second business. 

The way we deal with failure determines our ability to create and experience success. By changing our attitude towards failure, this in turn changes our experience of it. No longer is failure something we have to avoid at all costs, becoming instead something we can look to for opportunities to change, improve and make better. This is what separates the extraordinary people from the ordinary. Failure is an opportunity with a capital O.

Most people who are successful today are in that position, not because they haven't failed but because they have. It's their relationship with these failures that have determined their level of succeed. Unfortunately, in our society we prefer to focus on the success stories rather than the stories that helped such people achieve their success. It's as if it's not okay to be honest about our struggles when if it weren't for our struggles how can we achieve anything? Achievement and success is only possible with failure. 

To talk openly and honestly about our failures and struggles is to teach others that it's okay to fail and struggle and that without these experiences life wouldn't be the rich tapestry that it is. Sharing our bumpy journeys inspires others to begin or continue their own. There is nothing shameful about taking risks in life and attempting to express the very greatness that lies in all of us. It's always great to hear about someone who is enjoying a ride on the wave of good luck but it's a far more interesting and captivating story when that success was hard won in the face of adversity, through sheer determination and persistence. These are the stories that books and movies are made of. These are the stories that life is made of.  

So if you've found you've hit a snag and you're contemplating tossing in the towel and giving up, stop and take a moment to contemplate the so-called failures of those who have gone before you. Ask yourself, 'what can I learn from this and how can I do this differently?' Remember your failings today provide the foundation for your success tomorrow. And your tomorrow will come.