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What’s so good about failure?


Text and Photo by Henrylito D. Tacio

“You are not a failure, and you need to quit telling yourself that you could have avoided failing because no successful person ever avoids the pain in hopes for the gains.” – Anonymous.


J. K. Rowling, the famous British author of the Harry Potter series, was not an overnight success. Like in most cases, she started from scratch. This is a case in point. Her biggest fear during her beginning years “was not poverty, but failure.”

“We all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it,” she said during a commencement address delivered before the Harvard graduates. “So, I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale.

“An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.”

Rowling told the graduates: “You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

Had it not been for her early failures in life, Rowling won’t be as successful as she is now. Failure, she said, “meant a stripping away of the inessential.” She explained, “I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.

“Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged,” she continued. “I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

“He who has never failed has never tried,” Emmett LeCompte once said. Napoleon Bonaparte failed as an essay writer, William Shakespeare as a wool merchant, and Abraham Lincoln as a storekeeper.

None of them gave up. They moved into other fields tried other things for which they were better fitted, with the results we all know. “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm,” Sir Winston Churchill once said.

“It is a rare person who doesn’t hope responsibility for his failures will fall on somebody else. It is normal to want to shift blame for our troubles. But shifting isn’t easy to do. People don’t fool easily. It isn’t even easy to fool yourself. Besides, shifting the blame serves no practical ends. It means talking about troubles instead of remedies, about past problems instead of future plans,” Normal Shidle wrote.

Don’t be afraid to experience failures. “I can take any group of young people any place, and teach them to be inventors, if I can get them to throw off the hazard of being afraid to fail,” Charles Kettering pointed out. “You fail because your ideas aren’t right. You shouldn’t be afraid to fail, but you should learn to fail intelligently. By that I mean, when you fail, find out why you failed, and each time you fail it will bring you up nearer to the goal.”

Florence Chadwick set a world record when she swam across the English Channel from France in 13 hours and 20 minutes in 1950. The following year, she swam from England to France, making history as the first woman to swim the channel from both directions.

In 1952, she made a drastic move in accepting the challenge of swimming from Catalina Island to Palos Verdes, California. Although the waters were frigid and sharks trailed her, Chadwick’s resolve was shattered by something else. After 15 hours of hard swimming, she lost the will to continue and climbed aboard an escort boat – less than half a mile from shore.

“It was the fog,” she answered when asked why she stopped. “If I had seen land, I could have finished. But when you can’t see your goal, you lose all sense of progress and you begin to give up.” 

But Chadwick didn’t give up. A few months later, she successfully swam the same route – and set a new record.

“If at first, you don’t succeed, try and try again.” That popular proverb contains a great and powerful truth. Exclaimed Thomas Alva Edison to an assistant marveling at the bewildering total of his failures – 50,000 experiments, for example, before he succeeded with a new storage battery: “Results? Why man, I have gotten lots of results. I now know 50,000 things that won’t work.”

Not all successes started as triumphs. In fact, some success began as a failure. The Apple microcomputer was turned down by both Hewlett Packard and Atari but had first-year sales of US$2.5 million. In his first year in the automobile business, Henry Ford went bankrupt. Two years later, his second company also failed. Dr. Seuss’s first children’s book was rejected by 23 publishers; the 24th publisher sold six million copies.

“Many people fail in life because they believe in the adage: If you don’t succeed, try something else,” says Don B. Owens, Jr. “But success eludes those who follow such advice. Virtually everyone has had dreams at one time or another, especially in youth. The dreams that have come true did so because people stuck to their ambitions. They refused to be discouraged. They never let disappointment get the upper hand. Challenges only spurred them on to greater effort.”

Napoleon Hill said it all: “Most great people have attained their greatest success just one step beyond their greatest failure.” 

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