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The Power of Failure

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The Power of Failure offers both inspiration and advice on how failure can provide us with the foundation for long-term success. This book is loaded with inspiring real-life examples and stories, and filled with practical strategies that you can put to use immediately to fulfill your dreams.

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27 Chapters

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1. To Succeed More, Fail More



Failure is the foundation of success,
and the means by which it is achieved.

—Lao Tzu 2

An aspiring young man once asked a very prominent CEO how he could become more successful. The CEO was Tom Watson of IBM, who reportedly responded that if the young man wanted to become more successful he should do the seemingly unthinkable—fail. In fact, Watson advised that he should double his failure rate. At first glance this is an odd prescription indeed. Upon closer inspection, however, it contains a great deal of wisdom.

A failure should not be viewed as the end of the story but instead as a stepping-stone to a larger success. If someone never fails, this is a telltale sign that he is not trying anything new or challenging. Mastering new skills and growing as individuals require that we enter unfamiliar arenas that can provide us with new knowledge and capabilities. These new ventures can be as varied as learning to play the piano, speak a foreign language, water-ski, or invest in the stock market.


2. Be a Successful Learner by Learning from Failure



Bill Gates provided a practical perspective on the importance of learning from failure in his book Bill Gates @ the Speed of Thought, “Once you embrace unpleasant news not as negative but as evidence of a need for change, you aren’t defeated by it. You’re learning from it.”4, 5 He then went on to list many costly Microsoft product failures that provided the learning and opportunity for development of many of Microsoft’s biggest successes, mentioning the following examples:


Clearly Bill Gates had a view of successful learning from setbacks that helped him and his company to turn many potential failures into dynamic successes.

Without a doubt one of the most powerful pillars of long-term success is learning from mistakes. The importance of learning from mistakes for achieving significant success is so widely recognized that it might almost seem unnecessary to mention. A challenging, well-lived, and successful life will be filled with both ups and downs. Growing as a person and addressing significant real-world problems means we will surely fail some of the time, but if we learn from these failures and stay the course, we will eventually succeed.


3. Recognize Failure as the Lifeblood of Success



We can take a variety of roads in the pursuit of success. One obvious route is to work toward a goal as unerringly as possible until it is achieved. Success is measured by our clear progress toward this end. Failure is not only left out of the equation but it is avoided above all else. It is seen as incompatible with success.

Unfortunately, this all too dominant perspective can create some real problems in terms of our ability to learn, to grow, and to take the necessary risks we need to be fully alive. In his book The Active Life, noted author Parker Palmer powerfully addresses this concern. He points out that in the West our fixation on success (or what he refers to as “instrumental action”):


discourages us from risk-taking because it values success over learning, and it abhors failure whether we learn from it or not . . . [it] always wants to win, but win or lose, it inhibits our learning. If we win, we think we know it all and have nothing more to learn. If we lose, we feel so defeated that learning is a hollow consolation.


4. Learn the Challenging Secret to Successful Failure Patience



There is a powerful but challenging secret about the relationship of short-term failures to longer term successes. This secret is very difficult for many to accept and incorporate into their work and life, but it is an essential part of learning how to use the Power of Failure. The secret is patience.

In a recent interview for Fast Company magazine, Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, emphasized the importance of patience for succeeding in business.8 He explained that products and businesses go through three phases: vision, patience, and execution. And he said the patience stage is the toughest and most uncomfortable.

The vision stage generates a great deal of excitement and energy and the future looks promising. Eventually the final execution stage is a time of fine-tuning and figuring out how to be even more successful. Both the vision and execution stages can be very satisfying and comfortable. It’s the middle “patience” stage that can be very difficult. Ballmer explains, “You have to cut out parts . . . react to what the market is telling you. You get into trouble if you assume that you’re going to reach critical mass too quickly—because it’s most likely that you won’t. Through all these trials you can’t lose patience.”9


5. Overcome the Success Catch-22



In the classic American novel Catch-22, a pilot in World War II decides he does not want to continue flying combat missions.11 He realizes the probability of being killed in action is high and feels that he has flown enough missions.

When he talks to the military doctor and requests to be grounded, the doctor explains that he cannot ground him based on his physical health. The pilot then claims to be “crazy” and requests to be grounded for psychological reasons. Despite the pilot’s attempts to persuade him that he is crazy the doctor does not buy it. He also refuses to take the word of other bomber crew members who agree that the pilot is crazy. The doctor explains the crew members are the ones who are crazy because they don’t ask to be grounded.


Ultimately, the doctor explains what he calls Catch-22: The pilot is not crazy because he asks to be grounded (a rational self-preserving wish) while the other crew members are crazy because they don’t ask to be grounded (an irrational life-threatening choice). And the doctor does not ground those who don’t ask to be grounded.


6. In the Face of Failure, Search for Opportunities, not Obstacles



Ed Land, the inventor of instant photography and founder of Polaroid, kept a plaque on his wall that read “A mistake is an event, the full benefit of which has not yet been turned to your advantage.” 12, 13 This kind of thinking is at the heart of harnessing the Power of Failure.

Indeed, our potential for success in life depends a great deal on the way we think. Focusing primarily on opportunities rather than obstacles, particularly in the failures we experience, is especially important. We can program ourselves to be “opportunity thinkers,” but reprogramming our thinking is no easy task. Simply trying to think differently through force of will is generally not very productive. On the other hand, there are some practical things we can learn and do to help ourselves.


Dr. Albert Ellis, an authority on mental self-improvement therapy, maintains that beliefs can serve as a basis for change.14 According to the underlying theory, when a person has difficulty coping with certain situations, this ineffectiveness can often be traced to irrational beliefs. For example, we might avoid trying a new activity such as skiing or tennis because we believe we will fail and embarrass ourselves. This is a form of obstacle thinking. Obstacle thinking is typically driven by fear, especially fear of failure. Only by challenging these dysfunctional beliefs, so the reasoning goes, can a person successfully deal with the problem.


7. To be a Real Success, You Must Fail



The Introduction pointed out that most failures are simply challenges in progress. Whether these challenges ever arrive at success often depends on the strength and experience we bring to the challenge from struggling with past setbacks and failures.

Recently, a colleague e-mailed a revealing story that was circulating on the Internet about a butterfly. In the story, a man is watching a butterfly struggle to break out of its cocoon. After making some progress to work its way through a small hole, the butterfly appeared to simply stop its efforts. For some time it seemed to make no headway, so the man concluded it was stuck and decided to lend a helping hand by forming a larger opening in the cocoon with scissors. Afterward the butterfly emerged easily but with small, shriveled wings and a swollen body.


It turned out that the struggle to emerge from the cocoon would have forced the fluid from the butterfly’s body into its wings, a necessary process for enabling it to fly. As a result of the man’s well-intentioned “help” he had interfered with nature’s life-strengthening process. The butterfly was now doomed never to fly, but to crawl around with its swollen body and shriveled wings for the rest of its life.


8. Sometimes when You Win, You Lose



Jon Bowen was running a 10K (6.2 miles) race, the Harvest Moon Classic, in Washington, D.C.20 He had trained very hard for the race and was on target for a personal best time as he neared the halfway point. Suddenly, the runner in front of him twisted his ankle in a pothole and fell to the cement. The fallen runner grasped his ankle as he rolled onto his back. In one instant Mr. Bowen was faced with the decision whether to stop and help or run on past. He later explained that he had faced a moral dichotomy: “Duty to fellow man or every man for himself?”

He didn’t stop. In fact, he hurdled the runner in an effort to avoid losing precious time. When he glanced over his shoulder he saw that a woman runner had stopped to lend a hand. In the end, Bowen did finish with his personal record, but it bothered him that he made, in his words, “the selfish choice.”


Quoting novelist Ian McEwan, who wrote, “Selfishness is written in our hearts,” Bowen said that he believes compassion is in our hearts too. The challenge when you are heading for the finish line, he explained, “is knowing when to let compassion take the lead. Next time I hope to make the right choice.”21


9. Sometimes when You Lose, You Win



It can be a great feeling to dominate in competition. Winning decisively so that it is clear just how good we are, whether in tennis, bridge, or in our career, can seem pretty wonderful. Sometimes the old saying captures how we feel, “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

There are also times when we feel bad for the competition, especially if it is a child, a friend, or a well-liked relative. At one time or another most of us have experienced the wish, and even taken the actions, to lose on purpose. Consequently, we can end up feeling like a winner because of the joy the victory brings to our opponent, especially if it is a child. After all, would you really want to continue to compete if you knew that your continuous victories would bring frustration and dismay to someone you care about?


Most of us have also been in circumstances where winning just seems too easy. In competition when victories come with little challenge, we can find ourselves unmotivated, complacent, and losing interest. Continuous winning can become so routine that it loses much of its value to everyone involved.


10. Succeed at Win/Win, not Win/Lose



There are many ways to win. Some ways involve a heavy emphasis on our own wishes and a use of power, intimidation, and even force to get what we want. This approach can be described as win/lose. Our gain is at the expense of others and in order for us to win, others must lose. The classic win/lose example is in competitive sports. As teams vie to be the victors, they win by handing losses to other teams.

Everyday life is also filled with potential win/lose situations such as disagreements, misunderstandings, or when more than one person wants the same thing—whether it’s a last piece of sale clothing or to be chosen from many candidates for promotion into a single open job position. Unfortunately, such win/lose encounters can be demoralizing and damaging to relationships.


A perspective designed to avoid the pitfalls of potential win/lose situations has been described as a win/win approach. An attempt is made to satisfy the wishes of all involved, even if their views appear to be in opposition. For example, the Harvard Negotiation Project prescribes several win/win type strategies that are included in the popular book Getting to Yes. Among other things it advocates separating the people involved from the problem, focusing on underlying concerns as opposed to stated positions, and reaching agreement based on objective criteria and fair procedures.24


11. Succeed at Being a “Tryer” Even when You’re a “Failure”



In the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney an unlikely hero emerged. I’m talking about Eric Moussambani, a swimmer from Equatorial Guinea. Eric began the sport just nine months before the games, and he trained in a small hotel swimming pool. In fact, his biggest concern during a television interview seemed to be whether he could finish his race, which would be the longest distance he had ever swum.

When the time came for him to swim in his assigned qualifying heat, the two other swimmers in the heat were disqualified for false starts. So he swam the whole race alone in the pool to the wild cheers of hundreds of appreciative spectators.


What great performance brought out the excitement, enthusiastic support, and even a standing ovation from the international crowd? His time was nearly twice that of the fastest qualifying time of the day. He was even slower than the record for the event that is twice as long as his. There is no question that he failed to win the event and to be quite frank, failed badly. But there was also no question that he was a large success in trying, and the fans let him know this in loud supportive cheers. These cheers, he believed, enabled him to hang in there, endure, and finish the longest and most grueling swimming race of his life, the 100-meter freestyle (a mere two lengths of the pool).


12. Help Others Win, Even at Your Own Expense, to Help Yourself



It’s nice to win. The recognition, adulation, and sense of accomplishment can be almost intoxicating. This feeling can cause us to place a huge emphasis on achieving victory for ourselves in order to keep these good feelings coming.

Sometimes, however, it’s even better to enjoy the victories of others, especially those we care about. Most everyone knows the joy of watching children who are important to us win in sports, a spelling bee, a music competition, or even a silly game at a county or state fair. And we are often ready to sacrifice our own benefit to help kids in situations like this to win. Certainly most parents know this feeling—we want our kids to be winners. That desire is most often for their benefit and happiness rather than just our own ego satisfaction.


Similarly, when we choose to mentor someone who is less experienced in an area where we possess expertise, we want them to win. We sincerely hope that they will grow in their work and career and ultimately experience significant success. The same goes for valued friends, colleagues, and teammates. It can be very satisfying to help someone else win at work and in life, even when it means we have less time and effort to attend to our own immediate success. Perhaps the real winners in life are persons who have not only succeeded in their own efforts but were able to look beyond themselves and help others win as well.


13. Lose a Disagreement to Build a Relationship



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 . . .

—From “If” by Rudyard Kipling

People are almost always the key to a more rewarding and successful life. Unfortunately (or if you master a wiser view, thank God) people are different and frequently disagree.

When we find ourselves in one of these disagreements, we are presented with the golden seeds of opportunity in what at first glance looks like the weeds of misfortune. The key is to resist the compulsion to always try to win. There is a time to win and a time to lose. At least it may seem that you lose. But, as pointed out in Chapter 9, sometimes you can actually win by losing.

By acknowledging the logic of someone’s differing point of view, and allowing their argument to carry the day, you present them with a special gift. We all need to feel “right” some of the time, and each person’s perspective usually has value if you really look for it. That means there is a good chance that they are indeed right, even if you happen to be right too.


14. When You Feel that You’re “Losing it,” Declare “Temporary Sanity”



When we feel really out of sorts and are totally “losing it,” it is very difficult to keep any semblance of a balanced and healthy perspective. It could be that we are very angry at someone close to us or feel we have been mistreated by a boss or co-worker. Or we are confronted with a major area of anxiety and fear in our lives.

It is natural to get washed away by all the emotion that is released. We may go into a tirade or withdraw and shut ourselves off. We tend to see things from only our limited point of view and how the situation affects us personally: “if he had any respect for others, he would know how unreasonable he is being and agree with me!” This inner loss of control usually leads to outer loss in our current situation.


At times like this, when we are really worked up and upset, in a very real sense we are acting from a state of temporary insanity. This phrase has become a bit of a cliché that many view as simply a way to duck responsibility or to avoid suffering legal recourse from a destructive act. At the same time it raises a valuable alternative possibility.


15. Accept when Failure ws Really Failure



Author Sydney Finkelstein recently wrote an article in which he outlined several factors that contributed to the dot-com collapse of 2000– 2001.28 Among those was an apparent overly positive embrace of failure as an end in itself. Finkelstein points out that the assumption that failure will necessarily lead to learning is not always true. Many Internet company executives, especially young and inexperienced ones, developed a cavalier attitude toward failure, taking actions that were quite harmful to their firms. From Finkelstein’s view, real failure, rather than adaptive long-term-oriented learning, was the dominant result.

Throughout this book I have tried to make it clear that what we call failure is usually only a temporary setback or a “challenge in progress.” Sometimes, however, failure really is failure and we need to accept it for what it is. This requires that we face it honestly and avoid going too far to redefine it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to reverse this book’s theme 180 degrees and suddenly say that we should look at failure as a dead end and as a trigger for guilt and remorse. Rather, I’m saying we need to recognize that sometimes failure is just that—failure—so we need to face it honestly, take from it what we can, and get on with moving beyond it.


16. Choose to be Happy over Being Right



Life can be pretty frustrating when it fails to deliver what we think it should. When our new computer software doesn’t work quite the way it was supposed to, when the waiter brings our sandwich with mayonnaise when we asked for mustard, or when the new phone service doesn’t completely deliver what we thought it promised, we may feel it is time to fight for “what we deserve!” The personal loss or the inconvenience may be relatively minor but “it’s the principle of the thing!” Inevitably, though, there is cost in terms of time, effort, and unhealthy stress from waging the battle.

At these times it’s a good idea to ask the wise question “do I want to be right or to be happy?” Sometimes being right is worth the fight—if you’re allergic to the mayonnaise you need to send the sandwich back, even if it temporarily puts a damper on the lunch atmosphere for your party. Standing up for what you think is right may provide a significant opportunity to share perspectives, learn, and come to a win/win solution that benefits all involved. But often, if you’re honest with yourself, you will be happier and healthier if you simply make the best of the situation. Sometimes accepting a failure to get what we feel we rightfully deserve in specific circumstances can help us live more successfully overall.


17. Use EQ to Cooperate with Failure . . . to Succeed



Significant attention has been focused on the concept of emotional intelligence (EQ) made popular by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence.30, 31 Research in this area suggests that a person’s EQ can be as important as IQ (Intelligence Quotient) for determining effectiveness and success. Among other strengths, people with higher EQ tend to be more perceptive of hidden opportunities and interpersonal challenges that need to be addressed. By tapping into our emotional energy and our intuition, emotional intelligence can allow us to move beyond our success capacity based on only rational and intellectual intelligence. Part of the challenge is to see our emotions as sources of useful information for success and even wisdom as opposed to distracting intrusions. Since our emotions are highly interconnected with our thoughts, effectively managing our thought patterns is key.


One way to begin working with this important source of potential success is to take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle creating two columns. Identify a disturbing situation involving either a past or potential failure that seems to be negatively affecting your thinking and emotions. List your dysfunctional thoughts about the situation in one column and list alternate, more constructive thoughts in the other.


18. Let Mental Storms Blow Through



Let’s face it, the quality of our life experience is greatly affected by our moods. Even when we seem to be succeeding in life outwardly (in our work, relationships, health), we can experience a kind of inner failure and find ourselves feeling down. We may just wake up on the wrong side of the bed or dwell on disturbing thoughts about past or possible future failures.

At these times remember that our moods come and go and usually have little significance. True, we can feed them with additional worry, frustration, sadness, or some other emotion and cause them to grow in their intensity until they really do seem like a big deal. On the other hand, if we just let the mood pass we will find that those gloomy thoughts will give way to the more desirable ones that are right behind them.


An effective way to think about this is to view our thoughts and moods as inner storms. When a rainstorm blows in, we can get upset, shake our fist, and yell at it. Or we can just watch it run its course with mild interest and with full awareness that the sun will soon come out again. The same goes for our inner storms. A poetic image of this view follows.


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