The Necessity of Failure


The first time I tried to ride a bike, I fell. At 14 I crashed and received 22 stitches on my chin. As an adult I launched myself over my handlebars and shattered my elbow. After each failure I got back on my bike. By doing so I have known the exhilaration, achievement or joy of myriad other, more successful rides.

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During a 31-mile run at the Delaware Water Gap I repeatedly fell, cracked a rib at mile four, lost the trail at mile 27 and ended up running 34 miles. Driven by stupidity and feeling pain at every foot-strike I succeeded in finishing in the top 10. Bar none, that run was my greatest athletic accomplishment. I have run faster, smarter and with less pain but the “stumbles” that I endure, both literal and figurative, made it memorable.

These are representative examples illustrating that I have failed many more times than I have succeeded at pretty much everything I have tried. I am very proud of my failures, as they have driven me to succeed, taught me valuable lessons and serve to sweeten my victories.

Failure is not the opposite of success. Instead, failure is foundational, a necessary perquisite and a tool for understanding success. Put simply, without failure one would not know or achieve success.

Early in my career I was afraid to admit failure. I made mistakes but was not comfortable taking public responsibility for them, in part because of organizational cultures. However, a large part of my reticence was my personal misapprehension of the nature of failure.

I now know that failure signals leaving the comfort zone and stretching beyond previous limits.

Why is failure critical to success?

Failure is born of effort. Merely by trying and endeavoring we learn and grow. Failure should serve not to discourage, but to motivate. Thomas Edison’s setbacks in his effort to invent the incandescent light bulb were in the thousands. When asked about his setbacks, Edison, in his most famous reframe, said, “I did not fail. Rather I learned thousands of ways not to build a light bulb.”

A great way to measure your progress in any endeavor is to measure your setbacks. If you have not fallen enough times you probably will never reach your capabilities. Failure is the opportunity to begin again, perhaps more intelligently.

And that is the ultimate refrain. Failure is choosing not to challenge yourself. Failure is choosing not to fall, or when you fall choosing not to get up.

In contrast to Edison, many people avoid the chance of failure. In brokerage every call, pitch or negotiation is a chance for failure. In fact, most of what we do will not lead to success.

So, embrace failure as a path to success. Failure generates introspection while improving self-awareness and perspective; it is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Whenever I stumble I ask myself a lot of questions to figure out how I can improve. I always take full responsibility for any setback because it keeps me solution-oriented.

Whenever I succeed I try to remember all the effort I put in and the myriad setbacks. I truly believe that, in addition to the great mentors I have had in my career, the biggest driver of accomplishment was that I did not see the “f-word” as a bad thing.