“It is not the critic who counts. It is not the man who sits and points out how the doer of deeds could have done things better and how he falls and stumbles. The credit goes to the man in the arena whose face is marred with dust and blood and sweat. But when he’s in the arena, at best he wins, and at worst he loses, but when he fails, when he loses, he does so daring greatly.”—Theodore Roosevelt
Let’s face it, it’s no fun to fail. No one starts out trying something new with the expectation of failure. But what’s clear, is that everyone who has been innovative and effected change has experienced failure along the way. Overcoming failure is often the precursor to success.
When examining the personalities of the most creative, innovative people in nearly every discipline from medicine, humanities, art, music, science, technology and business, we can make an important observation about their make up; they are not afraid to fail!
Those who become exceptional in their field were generally more willing than most to make themselves vulnerable and take risks. They became really good at managing their failure, learning from their mistakes and improving themselves and the quality of their work. In general, the most successful people recover faster from failure, reflect on it in a non-emotional way and use their experience to chart a new course of action.
In Brene Brown’s recent Ted Talk she examines vulnerability and defines it as “emotional risk, exposure and uncertainty.” Brown says that from her twelve years of research on vulnerability she’s come to the belief that “vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage.” Successful people at some point in their careers allowed themselves to become vulnerable in order to try something that they wanted to do.
Launching a new business, giving a speech at a conference, exploring a new area of scientific research, changing your major, leaving a job or starting a new job requires courage. When you do anything new, you become vulnerable and must accept the possibility of things not going as you planned–failure. The upside of taking a risk is that when you try something that you have never done before, you open yourself up to potential for growth in a new discipline. When daring to try something new, we are uncertain of the outcome and this experience is the birthplace for personal growth.
When you overcome your fear of failure and jump into a new experience, you may even feel a sense of accomplishment for testing the waters. The exercise of allowing yourself to experience vulnerability and failure will strengthen the emotional muscles you’ll need to succeed.
Tim Brown, the CEO of the innovation and design firm IDEO, takes another approach to studying failure as he examines its relationship to creativity. Brown suggests that we can learn a lot about creativity and resilience by observing children at play. He shows evidence that adults fear the judgment of peers, and that we’re embarrassed about showing our ideas to people we think of as our peers and to those around us. It’s this fear that causes us to be conservative in our thinking. So we might have a wild idea, but we’re afraid to share it with anybody else. He asks a group of adults to draw a picture of the person sitting next to them in the audience. There’s lots of laughter among the adults and lots and lots of “sorry’s” for their drawing. “We see among adults there’s quite a bit of embarrassment.”
“When it comes to kids, they have no embarrassment at all, says Brown. They quite happily show their masterpieces to whoever wants to look at them. But as they learn to become adults, they become much more sensitive to the opinions of others and they lose that freedom and they do start to become embarrassed.” Researchers also looked at why some kids are more inclined to explore and feel free to play and why others are inhibited. In studies of kids playing, it’s been shown time after time that kids who feel secure, who are in a trusted environment, are the ones that feel most free to play.
Brown’s research reveals that you’re not born with a fear of failure, it’s not an instinct, it’s something that grows and develops in you, as you get older. “Very young children have no fear of failure at all. They have great fun trying new things and learn very fast as a result.” The fear of failure stops us from taking risks and cuts off new opportunities in life. It’s also clear that exploration and discovery come more readily when a person feels secure in their “play” environment.
When kids come across something new they ask “What is it?” and “What can I do with it?” Their openness is the beginning of exploratory play. This is what we all need to do more of. We need to abandon the adult behaviors that get in the way of new ideas and learn from kids to experiment more and enjoy the process of wrestling with uncertainty. We also need to be smart about choosing a place to work where we will fit into the culture so we can maximize our creativity.
Some of the world’s greatest success stories, from movie stars to scientists, experienced massive failure that could have easily led them to give up pursuing their goals. We remember all of these people for their monumental successes and we seldom focus on their setbacks or on the hurdles they overcame to reach their fame. For the sake of encouragement when it feels like you’ll never make it to the top (let alone have a secure job) we’ll focus on their failures.
Business Insider writers Ashley Lutz and Noah Plaue identified 26 Successful people who failed At First.
All of these people changed the world despite having experienced initial failure:
- Winston Churchill failed the 6th grade and he was defeated in every public office role he ran for. Then he became the British prime minister at the age of 62.
- Thomas Edison’s teachers told him he was “too stupid to learn anything.” Edison went on to invent 1,000 light bulbs before creating one that worked.
- Harland David Sanders, the famous KFC “Colonel,” couldn’t sell his chicken. More that 1,000 restaurants rejected him. But then one did, and today there are KFC restaurants bearing his image all over the world.
- R.H. Macy had a history of failing businesses, including a dud Macy’s in NYC. But Macy kept up the hard work and ended up with the biggest department store in the world.
- Steven Spielberg was rejected from his dream school, the University of Southern California, three times. He sought out an education somewhere else and dropped out to be a director.
- Albert Einstein didn’t speak until age four and didn’t read until age seven. His teachers labeled him “slow” and “mentally handicapped.” But Einstein just had a different way of thinking. He later won the Nobel Prize in physics.
- Oprah Winfrey was fired from her television-reporting job because they told her she wasn’t fit to be on-screen. But Winfrey rebounded and became the undisputed queen of television talk shows. She’s also a billionaire.
- After his first film, Harrison Ford underwhelmed the producer and was told he would probably never succeed. But today Ford is the third highest-grossing actor of all time.
- 27 different publishers rejected Dr. Seuss’ first book. He’s now the most popular children’s book author ever.
- While developing his vacuum, Sir James Dyson went through 5,126 failed prototypes and his savings over 15 years. But the 5,127th prototype worked and now the Dyson brand is the best-selling vacuum cleaner in the United States.
- J.K. Rowling was unemployed, divorced and raising a daughter on social security while writing the first Harry Potter novel. J.K. Rowling is now internationally renowned for her 7 books Harry Potter series and is the first person to become a billionaire from writing.
We try desperately to control the outcome and forget that all we can control is our own effort.
As Oliver Burkeman wrote in his recent WSJ article, The Power of Negative Thinking, ” Just thinking in sober detail about worst-case scenarios can help to sap the future of its anxiety-producing power.” We can gain inspiration from Steve Jobs famous declaration; “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way that I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.” Ironically, we waste our time when we worry about not achieving our goals and in the end it’s the worrying and fear that limit us most from pursuing them.
One effective strategy to overcoming one’s fear of failure is to start out by envisioning the worst-case scenario. Envision failure and consider it an integral part of the process for initiating success. Once you confront your worst fear and see that it doesn’t kill you, you can then plan for how you can recover.
If you are one who becomes paralyzed by your fear of a negative outcome, I suggest you adopt the following motto; Plan for the worst and hope for the best. Try to maintain a sense of humor about the “roller coaster” of emotions called life.
Greatness comes from allowing oneself to be vulnerable. Those who engage in activities, which expose their vulnerability, may be the strongest among us. Fear of failure does not eclipse their striving for new knowledge and growth. They understand that failure is on the path to developing something that might change the world.
Perhaps we can all become more successful once we shift our mindset to yearning for opportunities to take risks.
As a society, we have benefited from those who were willing to take risks and who didn’t become discouraged by their failures. We need to delight in exploration for its own sake and let go of our fear of judgment from peers. When we learn from our mistakes, failure can be an instructive experience. Perhaps it’s time to start making ourselves more vulnerable, taking more risks and occasionally failing in order to achieve greater success.