Clichés about failure in business aren’t hard to come by:
- The only failure is not having the courage to try.
- Failure is only a waste if you don’t learn a lesson from it.
- Failure is the best way to find out what doesn’t work before you land on what does.
Certainly, Thomas Edison subscribed to that last one. He claimed that each of the thousands of times he failed trying to invent the lightbulb brought him closer to actually doing it. Unlike other clichés, though, that one really does seem to have a considerable degree of truth to it. How come?
In taking the view of failure the way he did, Edison finds himself in excellent company. Some of the most successful people agree that failure is fundamentally a source of practical information. Sir Edmund Hillary saw his first two failed attempts to scale Mount Everest as a process of elimination, helping him cross off the routes that wouldn’t work, bringing him to the one that would.
For those who do eventually succeed, failure is a rite of passage, a sort of dues-paying. As a result, it’s a marker of fortitude, of having had persistence to keep going long after others have dropped out of the race. That might explain why lottery winners aren’t always looked kindly upon by those who feel they’ve worked hard for what they’ve earned. Success, many believe, first requires work, and failing is a big part of doing that work.
Highly successful people tend to be fond of publicly trotting out their past failures. They do that not only as a way of showing off their credentials–like an admission ticket to an exclusive club made up of those who kept the faith and fought their own way forward–but also as a form of celebration. You might find that boastful, but ask yourself: Haven’t we all felt the impulse to parade it, at least a little, before those who doubted once we’ve finally made it?
Rejection, after all, is one of failure’s most common guises–not exactly proof that an idea doesn’t work, but being told by someone more powerful that it wouldn’t, or couldn’t.
Many of the most successful authors were initially rejected by publishers, some of them countless times. The Chicken Soup for the Soul series was rejected by over 140 publishers. Stephen King threw the manuscript of Carrie into the garbage after being rejected by 30 publishers. Fortunately, his wife picked it out and convinced him to keep trying. “An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull” is how one publisher responded to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, before it went on to sell 15 million copies.
Likewise, business people who have attained a legendary status have their own rejection stories. Walt Disney was fired from the Kansas City Star because, according to his editor, he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”
Of course, those who fail and don’t go on to succeed get little recognition. We only hear about the ones who do.
But the fact that failure sometimes doesn’t lead anywhere at all has not kept the idea that it can from embedding itself deep in the American psyche. It’s still Theodore Roosevelt’s famous passage from his 1910 speech “Citizenship in a Republic” that says it best–and turns that myth into a call to arms:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory or defeat.
But here’s the paradox of that idea: It’s easier to become enamored of the successes of those who’ve made it big than it is to appreciate how long and arduous their prior journeys are. As a result, we’re apt to see big breakthroughs as at least partly a consequence of luck–which almost always does play a role–but to a degree, that glosses over the hard work and struggle that preceded it.
Perhaps that’s why most successful people feel the need to let us know that it was only after countless tries and frustrations that they were able to hit on something transformational. In that sense, they aren’t just boasting–they’re setting the record straight, and sounding a caveat that the rest of us can only ever partly hear: Failure really is a crucial source of information, but it’s tough to know just how hard-won–and therefore valuable–it is until you actually win.