Here’s a simple – yet critical – fact I wish we were all taught as young people; in order to be successful at anything, the chances are pretty good we have to fail at it first- and often, we’ll fail HUGE. Unfortunately, today we live in a world where everything is instantly available for us (a) at our fingertips, or (b) for a (36 – 72 month) cost-defered payment, meaning anyone can appease their need for instant gratification with just about anything they want, and in a heartbeat.
Need Want a new car? Sign away your life, and drive a brand new ride off the lot today! Want to look seriously cool? Buy products X, Y or Z and instantly look and feel like the cool people using them on T.V.! Need to lose weight, but don’t want to waste time with diet and exercise? No problem! We have a miracle pill that will “melt” away 20 lb. the first month! On and on the circus goes, right? And the biggest problem with these kinds of promises is that when the instant gratification wears off, (and it always does) people feel inadequate, and usually give up trying to accomplish whatever is that they wanted to accomplish in the first place; ever worse, they often feel powerless to accomplish it on their own… and that’s sad.
The challenge with getting everything we want so easily (or without honest effort) creates the illusion that we should be skilled/gifted at everything we try, and on the very first time we attempt it… which if you think about it, is just about as dumb to believe as it was for me to just say. Imagine if your baby didn’t walk the first time they tried – would you give up on them? Find them a “magic” pill to make them walk? Put them in the same brand of diapers the kids who walk on T.V. are wearing in the commercials? Of course not; any parent is going to support and encourage their child, understanding that walking – like most skills or accomplishments – take time to learn and master. No wonder so many babies don’t give up before they learn how to walk!
Here’s the thing: Most people try something once, then – because they suck at it – give up immediately saying “I’m no good at it”; we see and hear this all the time – take public speaking for example: Let’s imagine someone is asked to speak to a group, and has never done so before; chances are good they’ll freeze up at the very thought, then panic, and stress themselves out until the “big moment” arrives… When it does, they’ll quietly and anxiously mumble a few words out, with their head down to avoid eye contact. And then – with no further questions being asked – they’ll sit down, embarrassed at their so-called “failure”.
The truth? They probably did a good job, given their limited experience, since no-one is born a natural orator. Effective public speaking requires practice and repetition to learn… Just like any other skill. And there in lies the key to learning any skill…Practice and repetition. The fact that they even stood up and made an attempt makes this a success in my book! Remember this: Successful people understand that it takes time and practice and several (if not thousands) attempts at any skill, endeavour, task etc. before they begin to get the hang of it, or things work out the way they want, so they practice them over and over again, repeating the same actions until they master them. And it’s the practice and repetition that makes them successful… not magic pills or deferred payment plans.
Famous “Failures” from History
Just to prove a point, take a look at these “failures” from history; read their tragic stories and see if you can tell who they are. I think once you find out, you’ll understand the value in both practicing and constant repetition makes a lot of sense for us all.
The Depressed Politician: This gentleman failed grade six. As an adult, he suffered from depression and was defeated for every public office he ran for until he became Prime Minister of England at age 62. He went on to write “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never, Never, Never, Never give up.” (The use of capitals are his) It was this sense of honor and tenacity that helped win WW II and the allies defeat Nazi Germany.
The Failed Lawyer: As a young man, this fellow went to war a captain but was quickly demoted to the rank of private. Back in the public sector he went into business and failed. He then practiced law but failed at that as well. Finally he turned to politics where his record was dismal. He was defeated in his first try for the legislature, then in his first attempt to be nominated for congress, then in his application to be commissioner of the General Land Office, again in the senatorial election, yet again in his efforts for the vice-presidency, and finally defeated in the senatorial election. Unbelievably he went on to become the President of the USA and the author of many great transcripts including the Gettysburg Address.
The Corruptor of Youth: This Greek philosopher called “an immoral corrupter of youth” and sentenced to death by drinking deadly hemlock if he didn’t stop spouting his ideas to the students he encountered daily while hanging around the square. He drank the hemlock and died corrupting, even with his last breath. Compromise just wasn’t part of who he was.
The Lousy Basketball Player: This basketball great was cut from his high school basketball team. He went on to observe “I’ve failed over and over again in my life. That is why I succeed.”
The Lazy Boy: This future doctor gave up a medical career to write novels and was told by his father, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat catching.” He later wrote in his autobiography “I was considered by all my masters and my father, a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard of intellect.” I think judging by his writings and theories this English naturalist was anything but these things.
The Silent Misfit: This chap did not speak until he was 4-years-old and did not read until he was 7. His parents and teachers called him “mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift forever in foolish dreams.” He was later expelled from school and was refused admittance to the college. Fortunately he did have the opportunity to show his amazing intellect (and sense of humour) to the world, eventually being named “Person of the Century” by Time Magazine
The Failed Businessman: This businessman failed and went broke on 5 occasions prior to succeeding in creating the product that bared his name, and came in any color you wanted… as long as it was black. Of course these days the products that bear his name come in many different colours, shapes and sizes.
The Unmotivated Coach: Someone once wrote “He possesses minimal football knowledge and lacks motivation” about this famous football coach and leadership titan. The coach would later and famously observe that “It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get back up.” Many years later his philosophies and motivational quotes adorn many corporate offices and best selling business books.
The Cartoonist who Lacked Imagination: This cartoonist was fired by a newspaper editor because “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” He tried his hand at business but went bankrupt several times before building a theme park in an orange grove, which almost didn’t happen as the city rejected the proposal on the grounds it would only attract undesirables. Fortunately he pressed on, got the permit and changed the way we all experience magic from that day onwards.
The Rejected Cartoonist: Another cartoonist who had every cartoon he submitted to his high school yearbook rejected! He tried to work for Walt Disney who also wouldn’t hire him. He wound up creating a little comic strip instead featuring a bunch of little kids and a dog that sleeps on top of his dog house and fights the Red Baron.
Answers to “Famous Failures”
- The Depressed Lawyer is Winston Churchhill
- The Failed Lawyer and Politician is Abraham Lincoln
- The Corruptor of Youth is Socrates
- The Lousy Basketball Player is Michael Jordon
- The Lazy Boy was Charles Darwin
- The Silent Misfit was Albert Einstein
- The Failed Businessman was Henry Ford
- The Unmotivated Coach was Vince Lombardi
- The Cartoonist who Lacked Imagination was Walt Disney
- The Rejected Cartoonist was Charles Shultz
A Final Thought: There’s a professor at MIT who offers a course on failure, noting that this makes perfect sense since failure is a far more common experience than success. When asked during an interview if anybody ever failed the course on failure, he thought a moment and replied, “No, but there were two in completes”. After looking at this list of “failures”, I can see his point…