Applaud the Failures

Airlines, flight crews and disgruntled passengers seem to be getting a lot of media attention as of late. Having recently read The Wright Brothers by David McCullough, I find myself thinking how far we’ve come. According to the FAA, there are at least 7000 aircrafts in the sky at any given time and there are approximately 23,911 commercial flights every single day. That’s a far cry from the first-ever flight from a handmade glider built in 1902. The airline business has imperfections as does any business, but this multi-billion dollar industry only exists today because of the dedication and hard work of these two brothers.

The Wright brothers didn’t soar smooth or straight right into success. In fact, it is their failures we should be praising. Without them, the brothers would not have had the drive to make their dream a reality. After 6 years of tinkering with materials, through trial and error, these self-taught engineers finally had a prototype that took to the air. Weather and mechanics were unpredictable and caused them issues daily. Numerous crashes later, some with even deadly consequences, you’d think they'd have given up on their dream, but the setbacks only propelled their desire to correct the wrongs and make their prototype more effective. Their persistence and drive, even after failure, led to enormous success and to this day they continue to inspire many. In fact, the Apollo 11, the first successful lunar landing mission, carried with it a piece of fabric and wood, from the original 1903 Wright flyer, in July 1969 as a good luck charm.

In short, mistakes and failures serve to drive us onward toward our goals. Historian Sarah Lewis in a recent TED talk describes these as “near-wins”. She claims that we thrive most not when we’ve done it all, but when we still have more to do; that completion is a goal, but hopefully never the end.

After all, if Orville and Wilbur Wright only set their goal on getting an aircraft airborne, they would have stopped in 1902 when their first flyer lifted off the ground. Instead, they saw potential for more, set their goals higher (literally) with each success, and with each failure.

Sadly we live in a society that looks down on failures; we are taught they are a mere embarrassment. Recently an associate of mine shared how she has been teaching her teenage daughter how to drive a car with a manual transmission. The first 15-minute lesson did not go well and the daughter came home frustrated and fuming, admitting defeat with a loud “I’m never driving that car again!” Those who can drive one I’m sure can relate to this sort of angst, right? My associate assured her daughter that stalling the car at an intersection or two is familiar to anyone who has learned to drive a stick-shift. It is a rite of passage, the failure that is a mere stepping stone to mastery. The daughter, afraid of that sort of embarrassment, refuses to get in the car, which will in turn hold her back from learning the new skill.

How often do we, as entrepreneurs, hold ourselves back by fear of failure, unable to recognize the true value in it? Without knowing one extreme, we cannot even imagine the exact antithesis of it. Perhaps learning what failure feels like will only commit us more to what our end goal is. It should! Maybe it’s important to take a look at a few well-known names who have succeeded BECAUSE they first failed:

  • J.K. Rowling - Once penniless, depressed, and a single parent, she felt like the world was never a darker place. She persisted, writing at night in cafes while her daughter slept, she went on to become the world-famous author of the Harry Potter series.

  • Abraham Lincoln - His business failed, he suffered a nervous breakdown and he lost his first run for president, yet he continued his journey until he literally changed the world. In his own words: “My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.”

  • Michael Jordan - “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Despite being rejected by his early coaches as having any potential, he continued to work and went on to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

  • Thomas Edison - His teachers said he was “too stupid to learn anything.” Fired from two jobs for being “non-productive” yet he went on to make 1000 attempts at inventing the lightbulb--all of them failures. When a reporter asked him how it felt to fail 1000 times, Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1000 times. The light bulb was an invention in 1000 steps.”

  • Walt Disney - He dropped out of school, his business went bankrupt, he was fired from a newspaper for “not being creative enough” but this Mickey Mouse creator had a simple philosophy: “… we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

The list could be pages long. I’d venture to say that anyone who has ever succeeded in making a difference in their industry, has only come to it by way of failure. From Henry Ford to Bill Gates and Babe Ruth to Fred Astaire--do a little digging and you’ll find that all of them were seen as failures in their first attempts at success. Had they not persisted through each fall and clawed their way back to their goal, they would never be the household names they are today.

There is a popular song by One Republic that says “With every broken bone, I swear I lived.” It’s those broken parts of us that enable us to keep on going, ever moving toward the dream. So bring on the failures! I can’t wait to see what emerges from the other end.

Tell Us: What failures have you experienced that have ultimately led to successes?

Written by Mike Williams

I am a serial entrepreneur with more than 20 years of business experience. My goal with this blog is to pass on some of what I have learned in order to help you achieve success in business.

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