After Failure, Then What?

My son returned home for Christmas break from his studies and was greeted a few days later with his semester grades.  The greeting was not full of cheer of the season and brought back memories of the first few years of my own college experience.  I think that in life, we may experience more losses than wins.  Our attitude toward failure is what that will determine our ultimate success.

In failure we have many companions.  In May 1851 a large publishing house in England sent a rejection letter to a writer for a manuscript that was described as lacking “an antagonist with a more popular visage among younger readers” and asked that “the employment of ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ as it will put the reader too much in the mind of the Vicar’s sermon”.  The author was Herman Melville and the book was Moby Dick.

This man failed as an art dealer, flunked the entrance exam to theology school, and was fired by the church after failing at missionary work.  Although only one painting was sold by Vincent Van Gogh prior to his death, some of his pictures today will sell for over $100 million.

This famous scientist was expelled from school, failed his entrance exam into college, and was predicted that he would not amount to anything.  This was Albert Einstein’s life before he developed the theory of relativity.

Failure did not stop any of these people, but it has paralyzed countless leaders from reaching their potential.  At some point, all great achievers are tempted to believe they are failures.  In spite of this, they persevere.  There are some characteristics that I believe are a part of their success.

People who grow from failure will accept their mistakes and not blame others.  Pointing fingers gives people or circumstances power over you and will cause you to sink into a victim mentality.  Playing the blame game robs you of learning from failure and can push others away from you by refusing to take responsibility for your mistakes.  There was once a basketball player who was cut from his high school sophomore basketball team.  Over his career he missed over 12,000 shots, lost nearly 400 games and missed 25 would-be game-winning baskets.  But, Michael Jordan did win six championships and is considered by many to be the best to have played the game.  Jordan did not focus on blaming his teammates, the coach, or the officiating for those losses.  He concentrated on elevating the performance of the entire team by being the best he could be.  Imagine what little he would have accomplished if he spent all his time blaming others.

People who personalize failure see problems as large holes they are permanently stuck in, while achievers see any predicament as temporary.  One mindset wallows in failure of the past, others look toward the successes of the future.  Thomas Edison showed this trait when he was inventing the light bulb.  When he was in the throes of figuring out what would work for the light bulb, a reporter asked him if he was discouraged with the lack of results from his experiments.  Edison replied, “Results?  Why, man, I have gotten lots of results!  If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed.  I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward.”

People who fail forward learn to vary approaches to achievement.  In the Psychology of Achievement, writer Brian Tracy tells the story of four millionaires who made their fortunes by age 35.  On average, these people were involved in 17 different businesses before they found the one that took off.  They kept trying and changing until they found what worked. 

Those who grow from their failures will not waste time shoring up non-character flaws at the exclusion of their strengths.  People operating from a position of strength enjoy a far lower rate of failure than those laboring in areas of weakness.  Dave Anderson was a travelling salesman who failed at everything he tried to sell.  He was horrible at presenting his products and could not articulate his message. But as he travelled, he followed his passion, barbeque.  He visited thousands of restaurants and BBQ shacks across the country, got to know the owners, and learned what he could.  That knowledge was used to create the Famous Dave’s Restaurants we have today.

Spending energy focusing on past failures sabotages concentration and eats away at self-confidence.  When dealing with failure, achievers have short memories.  They quickly forget the negative emotions of mistakes and press forward resiliently. John Creasey did this.  He was a famous crime novelist who has sold over 60 million books, yet he received 743 rejection slips in a row before his first book was published.  The other thing high achievers will do with past failure is use the experience as a springboard to become great.  One famous Hollywood actor kept a rejection letter above his mantle.  It described him as “balding, skinny, can dance a little.”  The dancer was Fred Astaire.

The book of Proverbs tells us that as a person thinks in his heart, so is he.  It is nearly impossible for a person to believe is a failure and yet achieve greatness.  There is a great temptation to internalize failure for those who have failed at business, school, or in a relationship.  Failure offers us an incredible opportunity when it occurs.  Will we review our present position and grow, realizing that a failure is to be separated from one’s self-worth?  Or will we pursue the other option and wallow in a pit of despair.  Our choice on how we respond to failure holds the key to our success.