Dealing with Failure often Precedes Achieving Success

Stephen DeAngelis

May 21, 2010

In yesterday’s post entitled A Window of Opportunity for Entrepreneurs, I indicated that I would discuss a column by Luke Johnson that dealt with success and failure. President Theodore Roosevelt once famously said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” That is basically what Luke Johnson’s column is about. He writes: “Success is not about being ambitious – that is easy. It’s about overcoming adversity” [“Behind all successes are a series of failures,” Financial Times, 31 March 2010]. He continues:

“In my experience, what separates the winners from losers in business – and probably in life – is how they handle disappointment. If you strive to achieve, you will suffer setbacks, just as thunder follows lightning. As everyone knows, if nothing is ventured, nothing is gained. Inflexible entrepreneurs who imagine they cannot possibly fail are likely to suffer an uncomfortable shock when their luck runs out. What is needed is a pragmatic approach so that you adapt and rebound if events do not go precisely according to our desires. As Helmuth von Moltke, the Prussian field marshal, said: ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy.’ You might fail to get a job, miss a deal, be defeated in a contract battle, lose money on an investment. Remember always that no one triumphs every time; and the more attempts you make, the more reverses you will suffer – as well as victories. After all, failures are rarely fatal, and most are unimportant. There will be another company to buy, another great appointment, another race to run. What matters is your attitude to the inevitable knocks.”

The right attitude is an essential characteristic if one wants to become a successful entrepreneur (for more on this subject, read my posts entitled Optimism and Pessimism, In Praise of Optimism and Optimism, and Entrepreneurs, and Prosperity). Johnson continues:

“I reflect on this because recently a project I had been working on for some time came to nothing. As I accepted the repulse, my usual set of responses kicked in: ways of stopping myself becoming disillusioned. Initially I think back to other failures in the past, and how all the intensity of emotion prevalent then has entirely dissipated – time has cured any regret. I try to learn from a flop: what did I do wrong, what shall I do differently next time? In every disaster there is a precious element of experience. But while improvement is essential, it pays to keep blame in proportion.”

As I noted in another post, there is always a lot more to be learned during times of crisis than there are during prosperous times. One of the real tragedies of most crises is that people fail to learn the lessons they should. There is one caution I would raise about Johnson’s advice to “keep blame in proportion” and that is that there is a difference between accepting blame for failures and rationalizing one’s actions. I recommend accepting blame when necessary and avoiding rationalization altogether. Citing another Teddy Roosevelt quote, “The only man who makes no mistakes is the man who never does anything.” Johnson agrees:

“Chance plays a huge role in life, so do not torture yourself unnecessarily in the wake of a mistake. And by the same token, try to avoid making so many excuses that you sound as if you’re in denial. Honestly analyse the reasons why things did not go your way, and then move on.”

Johnson also recommends that you surround yourself with friends and family who can help you keep things in perspective. He asserts that it is easy “to get carried away with imagined dramas.” He then returns to the subject of having the right attitude.

“Try to avoid complaints and irritation in the workplace – everyone hates an incessant whinger; they develop an odour of self-pity that is most off-putting. Do not cave in to pessimism or despair. Life is a long journey, the world is a big place, and there will be other opportunities. Of course there is unfairness, but a setback will only cause you serious harm if you allow it to damage your confidence.”

One of the symptoms of those suffering from clinical depression is a desire to withdrawal from the world. Those whose self-esteem has been damaged as the result of a failure also tend to want to withdraw from the world. But as the famous Frank Sinatra song “That’s Life” states:

“I’ve been up and down and over and out
And I know one thing:
Each time I find myself, flat on my face,
I pick myself up and get back in the race.”

That is also advice Johnson gives:

“Keep busy – never retreat from the fray entirely. Take exercise, research other possibilities, network furiously, redouble your efforts and seek advice about alternatives. As Winston Churchill said: ‘Never give in, never give in, never; never; never.’ Set new goals as soon as possible, keep occupied by planning fresh adventures, and retain your thirst for experimentation. As Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, put it: ‘Failures are not something to be avoided. You want to have them happen as quickly as possible so you can make progress rapidly.’ Coping with these hardships requires tenacity and self-belief – but nothing of lasting value is ever easy. Samuel Johnson said: ‘Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.’ Almost every entrepreneur I have met has clambered over considerable obstacles to reach their objectives. At least all these hurdles create barriers to entry, which is why highly accomplished business owners are so rare. We live in a far from perfect world, and this is the phase in the cycle when things are apt to go awry. But educating yourself to cope with each misfortune, while soldiering on relentlessly, is the surest formula for glory I know.”

Getting over failures is not easy. Accepting defeat is never fun. If you find yourself in a funk following a particularly bad stretch, just click on the video and let Frankie urge you forward!