The Other Side of Failure

Thomas Edison was a failure.  Is that how you remember him?  No, because that’s not what defined him.  We all fail.  The question is, “What do we do with our failures?” We can either let them drag us down, or propel us to success.

Italian Temper

I failed numerous times finding a healthy way to express anger.  I hold a double-standard for my children, who I expect to calmly respond when disaster strikes their world – a carefully constructed lego tower is suddenly decimated, fresh pajamas are suddenly soaked by a spilled drink, or a sibling steals their magna-tiles. Yet it’s okay for my deeply seeded Italian genes to erupt through my throat in volcanic rage when one of my kids crashes one of my towers.  My temper tantrums are failures, but I don’t let them define me.  The story’s not over because I’m not throwing in the towel. 


We all have set backs in relationships, health, finances, and our professions.  It’s okay to fail, but what if we can use these failings to launch us toward excellence?  Two great books speak to this.  The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson focuses on the idea that little disciplines, healthy actions, over time compound to great success.  He quotes Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM,

“Would you like me to give you the formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure….You’re thinking of failure as the enemy of success.  But it isn’t at all.  You can be discouraged by failure – or you can learn from it.  So go ahead and make mistakes.  Make all you can.  Because, remember that’s where you’ll find success.  On the other side of failure.”

Failure is not an option.

Olsen responds to this idea, “Oh really? Well here’s a reality check: failure had better be an option, because whether or not you consider it an option, it’s going to happen!  If you go through life with the philosophy that “failure is not an option,” then you’ll never have any good opportunities to learn.” 

He references Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Thomas Edison, and Abraham Lincoln with their litany of failures which paved the way to their successes.  Edison famously said about finding a stable filament for the electric light bulb, “I have not failed. I’ve simply discovered ten thousand ways that don’t work.”

Michael Jordan said, “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

Olsen concludes, “Successful people fail their way to the top.

Olsen also discusses blame and responsibility and quotes John Burroughs who said, “A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame someone else.”

John Maxwell’s book Failing Forward is about turning our mistakes into stepping stones for success.  He gives a lot of concrete advice, but I’ll share some key take-aways:

Learn a new definition of failure 

All roads to achievement lead through the land of failure. Attitude is everything.  Healthy contentment is essential to withstanding failure.  The key to positive action is to know the difference between a problem to be solved, and a fact of life to be accepted.

Maxwell focuses on attitude saying, “Failure is an inside job.  So is success.  If you want to achieve, you have to win the war in your thinking first.  You can’t let failure outside you get inside you.  You can’t control length of your life – but you can control its width and depth.  You can’t control the contour of your face – but you can control its expression.  You can’t control the weather – but you can control the atmosphere of your mind.  Why worry about things you can’t control when you can keep yourself busy controlling the things that depend on you?”

And, “There is no failure except in no longer trying. There is no defeat except from within, no really insurmountable barrier save our own inherent weakness of purpose.”

So how should we proceed?

  • Find the benefit in every bad experience.
  • Don’t overestimate the event and underestimate the process.
  • If you’re not failing, you’re probably not failing forward.
  • Think of major setbacks.  What are the benefits that occurred, benefits that might occur.
  • Learn from a bad experience and make it a good experience.
  • If at first you do succeed, try something harder.

Quitting is easy, anyone can do it.

Eric Thomas said, “I dare you to fail for a year, to see if you can get to the end.” It takes courage to fail & keep going!

John Maxwell explains the pragmatic path to success, “Nothing worth achieving comes easily.  The only way to fail forward and achieve your dreams is to cultivate tenacity and persistence.  These qualities can be learned, partly by developing the habit of following through on your commitments when you don’t feel like it. But to begin cultivating these qualities, you need a strategy.”

The only difference between a little shot and a big shot is the big shot kept shooting.

So what? Maxwell encourages us to:  1. Get up. 2. Get over it.  3. Get going.

Risk failing by taking action!

Golden Perspective

My favorite story toward the very end of Maxwell’s book:  Thomas Edison, at 67 years-old said, as his laboratory burned to the ground, “Thank goodness all our mistakes were burned up.  Now we can start again afresh.” 

Aristotle said, “To act or even speak is to risk failure.  Its safer to keep your mouth shut and do nothing.  But will that produce a fulfilled life?” Brene Brown adds to this,

Prepare to fail, knowing that success, solid relationships, virtue, and a myriad of experience await you on the other side of failure – as long as you are willing to fail, and then decide to fail forward.


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