How to acheve success by failing

“Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure.

– Thomas Watson, Jr. President of IBM (1952 – 1971)

Business Week Magazine has an interesting article titled, “Why Failures Can Be Such Success Stories.”  Along with an accompanying slide show, the writer details the multiple failures of many famous people and explains how and why they were able to rebound from a potentially debilitating experience:

  • Basketball superstar Michael Jordan was cut from his High School team.
  • Walt Disney was fired from his newspaper job because “he lacked creativity.”
  • Jack Welsh, former CEO of GE, literally “blew the roof” off a building because of a failed experiment early in his career.

What drives these people – and thousands of others just like them – to succeed? Why didn’t they just sink into the floor and seek cover from their mistakes?

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” – Albert Einstein

That’s one explanation. And quite acceptable – in a clinical sort of way. Theoretically, I can accept the need to learn from my mistakes. And I have – made many mistakes – and learned from many of them.

What is more complex is the “blow to the ego” that usually accompanies a colossal failure. It is not the mistake, per se, that matters. It is how we personally react to the mistake. What we learn about what went wrong is important. But… what we learn about ourselves – and our reaction to the failure – is what determines our success – or our potential failure.

“We need to teach the highly educated person that it is not a disgrace to fail and that he must analyze every failure to find its cause. He must learn how to fail intelligently, for failing is one of the greatest arts in the world.” – Charles Kettering

What we can teach – others and ourselves – is the concept of “self-efficacy.”  Resiliance. The ability to bounce back after a failure. Learning how to look ahead and learning from your mistakes. Learning not to view mistakes as a personal failure.  To quote from Douglas MacMillan’s Business Week article:

“While self-efficacy is akin to other aspects of positive thinking such as self-confidence and self-esteem, it relates in particular to self-assurance about being able to excel at a particular task rather than to a person’s overall self-image. When failure strikes, people with high self-efficacy learn from their errors and strengthen their resolve to succeed.”

“Self-efficacy” is a trait that can be learned. It is a trait that leaders learn. It is a trait that leaders teach to others. A trait that they help to nurture in others – personally and organizationally.

How? How do you teach “self-efficacy?” By coaching and mentoring your staff. By offering constructive feedback on a continuing basis. By teaching people to “fail intelligently.” By teaching people how to succeed – by failing.

“Most people would learn from their mistakes if they weren’t so busy denying that they made them.” – John Hays


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  1. I loved the “How to Achieve Success by Failing” post. Thanks for sharing that!

  2. Thanks Matt! I’m so pleased that you enjoyed this post.

    I am passionate about encouraging people to take risks – knowing that they will be supported and encouraged to learn from their initiative. The biggest risk is the “blow to the ego” and a caring, supportive coaching system can really help in this regard.

    Anyone else care to share your sotries, experiences on this topic? If so, add your comments below…

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