It was Benjamin Franklin who, in 1817, recycled an earlier phrase from literature about death and taxes many of us may be familiar with:
"'In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."
Let me add another certainty to that list. It’s something all of us have invariably been subject to at some point, and that is the experience of failure.
All of us have failed at something, and as uncomfortable as it may be to admit, we’ll continue to fail at something or someone, or ourselves throughout our entire life, again and again.
And just as certain as failure, will be success.
Failure and success are mutually exclusive, or are they? Failure is a dynamic catalyst for how to come back and do something better next time around. Think of some of your sweetest successes. Why did they feel so rewarding? Probably because they ignited the kind of determination and passion that inevitably follows setbacks.
Recently, I attended a talk where Jeffrey Katzenberg was the key speaker. Jeffrey is the founder of DreamWorks Animation, a company he created right after one of the most spectacular sackings in the US Film industry in 1994, while he was the Chairman of The Walt Disney Studios, during a mostly long and successful tenure in the role.
But Katzenberg loved animation, so his failure actually inspired him to go towards his dream. As a founder and CEO of DreamWorks Animation, he has overseen the production of such animated franchises as Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, Monsters vs. Aliens and How to Train Your Dragon. He continues to be a tour de force in the Film Industry.
It’s not dissimilar to the story of the late Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple. Have a squiz at his famous Stanford Lecture just below if you feel like some inspiration. Like Jeffrey Katzenberg, he was also sacked in a spectacular fashion and again it resulted in another huge success story. Some years later Steve Jobs eventually returned to Apple and was instrumental in reviving the company he founded from near bankruptcy to become a world force in the computer revolution. He was undoubtedly the pioneer of that revolution. He widely credits his earlier failures and setbacks for that success.
He said of his sacking:
The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.
This is his famous Stanford Commencement Speech, from 2005
And there’s NO shortage of local examples of one-time failures in Australian politics who went on to succeed spectacularly. John Howard and Paul Keating will be recorded in history as two of the most successful and impactful PM’s in Australian History. They both had to overcome several setbacks before that could take place.
In business, failure is almost a given. Most new products fail. So do most small businesses, especially in the first 12 months. You’ll find behind some of the biggest success stories, is a previous failure... namely because persistence paid off. The trick is to carry those lessons into the future, and leave behind the residue of what we didn’t do right, because it no longer serves us. We are better and smarter during our next attempt and we are stronger for it. The world didn't end, like we thought it would. Growth and learning is contained in all loss. When we harness the powerful lesson of failure, we excel.
Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling has spoken regularly about the impact of failure in her life, which she says propelled her towards creativity. It is the theme of her commencement speech at Harvard University in 2008; another highly motivating speech.
“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success. I’ve met people who don’t want to try for fear of failure”.
So go right ahead and fail, and then look forward not back. You’ve already fallen down... so you have nothing to lose. You now know you can survive. Failure also erodes the fear moving forward, because you have already experienced your worst fear, so it places you into a fearless domain.
As J.K Rowling points out “you will never truly know yourself or the strength of your relationships until both have been tested by adversity”.
Failure needs to be more widely accepted in our culture as an inevitability of life we’ll all eventually benefit from, as painful as it can be at the time.
There is no shame and vulnerability in failure, just survival, and the confidence and knowledge gained from that is so powerful. In the end, we don’t have to just survive, we can use the lessons to positively thrive.