It’s not how often you fail. It’s how often and how fast you get back up.
Between the stunning outcomes of the World Series and the presidential election it’s clear that thinking in terms of winners and losers is pretty much ingrained in our collective psyche. We love the black and white label of winner and loser; it’s easy, quick, and final.
Or is it?
What if the difference between winning and losing was simply a matter of where YOU drew the finish line. That’s especially true for those of us who want to be innovators, a journey that is littered with obstacles determined to derail and deter us.
Many decades ago, before I started on my entrepreneurial journey, I was interviewing for a position with a large tech company. I’d had a long run of very successful positions in the software industry running the gambit from software developer, to education, consulting, and ultimately sales and marketing. My resume portrayed a stellar trajectory of wins, but that’s what resumes are supposed to do!
“Success all too often looks like a series of well calculated moves on a chess board where strategy, planning, and execution all carve out a wonderfully well though out path from start to finish. Guess what? That’s a bunch of crap.”
At the end of a day-long interview process I met with the CEO who looked carefully at my resume and asked me point blank, “This looks very impressive. Have you ever failed at anything?” He said it with a twinge of sarcasm as though he was challenging me to come clean with the back story to my well presented and constructed curriculum vitae.
I thought for a second and answered, “Yes, I’ve failed at everything!”
Well, that earned me an interesting look back.
I continued, ” It’s just that I kept on failing until I succeeded at whatever I took on. What you see on my resume is the end result of many failures, a series of finish lines that were crossed after uncountable stumbles and falls.” The simple truth was that I just refused to loose sight of the finish line and was willing to suffer any embarrassment (heck, outright ridicule and humiliation) in reaching it.
I never ended up taking the job, but the words of that naïve twenty-something year old have echoed in my head many times since.
Success all too often looks like a series of well calculated moves on a chess board where strategy, planning, and execution all carve out a wonderfully well though out path from start to finish.
Guess what? That’s a bunch of crap.
Success in my experience, and in every case where I’ve observed that of others up close, is determined by how well, how quickly, and how determinedly you pick yourself back up again.
Yes, that sounds utterly colloquial and simplistic, and yet it’s 100% true.
So why is it so hard to practice? Because we equate the rate of failure to a reduction in the rate of success. Stop and think about that for a minute. It makes perfect sense, right? The more you fail the less you succeed.
So, what if I told you that what I’ve seen consistently is just the opposite. That the most successful people I know are the ones who are undaunted by failure, who consistently blast through it, learn their lessons, and plow forward, bruised but undaunted, discouraged but not defeated.
I’d challenge you to find anyone who has achieved great success who was not also first seen as a disastrous failure.
“…the only sure way I’ve found to achieve success is to not only stop being afraid of failure but to embrace it as an ally in your journey.”
Take your pick from Jobs to Oprah, Disney to Spielberg, Rowling to Lincoln–all would have been gloriously unknown failures had they not simply kept on trying.
So, how do you grab those bootstraps and haul yourself back up when life smacks you down? Here are five ways to make sure you keep moving towards the finish line.
1. Accept That We ALL Stumble, Fall, and Fail
The biggest mistake you can make is to believe that any failure defines you. No failure is an end point until you decide it is. The only failure is not getting back up and trying again. Channel your frustration and your energy into moving forward not dwelling in self loathing.
2. View Failure as a Milestone
Edison said it best, ” I have not failed, I’ve just found 1000 ways that won’t work.” Maybe you’ve only tried 998 ways.
3. Define Your Own Success
Success is not an existential reality. Define it on your own terms and do not be afraid to recreate you definition when it no longer serves you. Jobs was the biggest failure of his time until he wasn’t. It reminds me of the quote often mistakenly attributed to Gandhi or Jobs, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Deal with it!
4. Remind Yourself That It’s a Choice
When I was in college I worked as a nurse’s aid in a spinal cord injury unit with quadriplegics. They could no longer walk or use their arms, but they could still choose to wallow and whine or win. I have always been inspired by how some simply made the choice daily not to be defeated. Christopher Reeve used to say that after he was first injured he’d sometimes spend the first hour of his day feeling sorry for himself, get it over with, and then move on. It is your choice.
5. Increase Your Failure Rate
Yes, this one rubs every fiber of your being the wrong way. The last thing we want to do when we fail is fail again. And yet the only sure way I’ve found to achieve success is to not only stop being afraid of failure but to embrace it as an ally in your journey. Use it to motivate, inspire, and teach you–those three form the bedrock of success, and failure is their greatest source.
So, do you want to win? Simply refuse to draw the finish line until you have failed often enough to succeed.
This article was originally published on Inc.
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Tom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.