Nothing breeds success like failure

It is an inevitable and unavoidable truth that we will all, at one time or another, fail.

Individually. Collectively. Personally. Organisationally.

But the less obvious truth is that failure can lead to success.

To err is human

I missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

Believe it or not, these are the words of Michael Jordan, arguably basketball’s “greatest of all time.” His accomplishments include “two gold medals, six finals MVP awards, five league MVP awards, three All-Star MVP awards, ten scoring titles, Defensive Player of the Year and an induction to the Hall of Fame in 2009.”

Before creating the revolutionary vacuum cleaner we know and love today, Sir James Dyson invested 15 years, nearly his entire savings, and built 5,127 prototypes before he got it right.  In his words that means, “There were 5,126 failures.”

Scott Sandage (author and associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University) says:

To paraphrase the anthopologist Marshall Sahlins, academics can be certain of two things: someday we’ll be dead and eventually we’ll all be proven wrong. (Sahlins’ tip for a successful career: make sure the first precedes the second.)

Of entrepreneurship, Charlie Gilkey says:

You’ll make too little and sweat it. You’ll make too much and blow it. You’ll say Yes and kick yourself for it. You’ll say No and spend the rest of the year remembering the ‘wrong’ forks you took.

And the good news is…?

All of these people have experienced failure. They’ve admitted failure. And they’ve known success.

While failure is uncomfortable, difficult, embarrassing and, at times, devastating, it can also be a catalyst for learning, change and reward.

In some cases, failure is essential for achievement and inherent to attaining a goal.

Alberto Alessi, winner of the Design Award for Lifetime Achievement and third generation head of the iconic Italian design firm, told Fast Company:

I have to remind my brothers how vital it is to have one, possibly two fiascoes per year. Should Alessi go for two or three years without a fiasco, we will be in danger of losing our leadership in design.

Walking the winding road to success

Much as we like to think of the journey to success as being like a Roman road, straight and unswerving, in reality it almost always involves roundabouts, u-turns, blind alleys, detours and hairpin bends.

I love the below cartoon (attributed to Demetri Martin, This is a book) and, having become an online meme over the last couple of years, it would seem that it has resonated with others also.

Two cartoon sketches side-by-side, both titled 'Success'. The cartoon on the left shows a perfectly straight arrow with the caption 'Success: what people think it looks like'. The cartoon on the right shows another arrow but this time with a tangle of wiggly lines in its centre and the caption 'Success: what it really looks like'.

Following such a winding path does however require persistence, tenacity, determination and resilience—it is not easy to keep going in the face of multiple setbacks. Honesty, transparency, maturity and humility are also all needed.

Yet, numerous authors have observed that it is these very traits that can be the source of reward.

For more than 100 years, psychologists and scholars have shown that perseverance seems to be inherent to success over and above either talent or intelligence. Honesty and transparency can also result in the development of credibility and trust.

Avoiding the anti-failure bias

Accepting and admitting failure requires us to confront our fears. It also involves risk—risk of rejection, risk of misunderstanding and risk of consequences. Perhaps this is why we naturally shy away from failure and seek to avoid it whenever possible. Rita McGrath (a professor at Columbia Business School) has coined this tendency the “anti-failure bias.”

But, as we have already seen, failure does not always have the negative impact we so fear. In fact, McGrath points out that an avoidance of failure can itself have unintended and negative consequences. Ironically, failure can be caused and exacerbated by a blinkered desire for success.

We therefore need to create a culture in which it is acceptable to fail, both individually and organisationally. A culture that encourages experimentation and learning. A culture in which individuals and organisations are encouraged to admit their failures and move beyond them.

Many designers and developers have already learned this lesson and agile methodologies encourage their users to: “Fail early, fail fast, fail often.” In essence, this involves rapidly prototyping ideas to test their strengths and weaknesses, discover their failure points, and unearth future improvements. Rather than investing vast amounts of time and money into a fatally flawed project, such an approach ensures that “every failure is a step on the path to success.”

A big, fat BUT…

In writing this article, I do not wish to portray the idea that all failure is good. Circumstances in which failure has resulted in crippling and catastrophic consequences are within all too easy reach: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster; the global financial crisis; or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, to name but a few. In both these disasters and within our own circles, there will be people “for whom failure is a crushing reality, not an inspiring lesson.”

Failure is never without a cost. In a working paper on life after business failure, the authors identify entrepreneurial failure as having three primary costs: “financial, social and psychological.” In some cases, it is possible to moderate and recover from these; at other times, the costs can prove debilitating.

Tellingly, the authors also observe that struggling ventures that delay cessation have variously been referred to as “‘permanently failing’…’unproductive’…’chronic failures’.. and ‘the living dead'”. It seems safe to assume that none of these are desirable states.

Whilst the journey to success is undoubtedly a winding road, ploughing ahead in the face of warning signals at every juncture is surely a fool’s errand. Failure is nuanced and we need to understand this.

Jamer Hunt, writing on Fast Co.Design, suggests that “we need a failure spectrum.” I believe this is a brilliant idea and it is one that I intend to explore further in a later post.

In the meantime, it is enough to say that we need to be able to identify when failure is (or at least can be) productive; when it is a sign that something is wrong and we should quit; and when preventative measures should be taken to avoid it.

Breeding success—a failure how to

All in all, this therefore begs the crucial question: How? How do we affirm failure correctly and effectively? How do we encourage perseverance and daring? How do we embrace failure and turn it into success?

That, my dear readers, is something for another day… Breeding success—a failure how to

And for those of you who like the research…

Hunt, J. (2011). Among six types of failure, only a few help you innovate. Fast Co.Design

McGrath, R.G. (1999). Falling forward: real options reasoning and entrepreneurial failure. Academy of Management Review, 24(1): 13-30.

Salter, C. (2007). Failure doesn’t suck. Fast Company

Sandage, S.A. (2012). Get back in the saddle. Times Higher Education

Ucbasaran, D., Shepherd, D., Lockett, A. & Lyon, J. (2012). Life after business failure: the process and consequences of business failure for entrepreneurs. CSME Working Paper.

Wylie, I. (2007). Failure is glorious. Fast Company


Special thanks must go to Scott Sandage whose article inspired this discovery into failure and from whose writing the title of this article was borrowed.

Article by

Debbie Stocker

Debbie is director of Stocker Partnership, a strategy and innovation consultancy. She's a great facilitator, researcher and strategist. With an approach that is both creative and methodical, Debbie combines her expertise in psychology with a strong commercial focus. Her signature strengths include kindness and a love of learning. She also line manages the office dog. More about us

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