Thomas Edison has done it. Naomi Watts often jokes about it. Sylvester Stallone mastered it. Billy Joel did it with his piano. Even Abraham Lincoln earned a name for himself for doing it many times over. In fact most of us experience it fairly frequently. Some more than others. It’s known as the other ‘f’ word. The difference, however, between the mega-successful and the rest of us ordinary folk is a simple matter of interpretation. I’m talking about ‘failure’. Wait! Stop! It’s not that bad I promise!
Reality television shows like Big Brother sound more like a semi-trailer reversing with all the profanities being thrown around. Yet no one blinks an eyelid. Mention the word ‘failure’, however, and expressions drop like dead weights. To call someone a ‘failure’ is to bestow the cruelest insult upon them. Just as sitting around a table at a dinner party talking about your latest botched attempt at something would be equivalent to talking about death. You just don’t do it. Especially during dessert.
But like death, failure is a natural part of life. Unfortunately, we are all too ashamed or scared to admit our own ‘failures’ for risk of appearing weak or incompetent that no one would dare brooch the topic anyway. But is the concept of failure really as dirty as we make it out to be?
Sylvester Stallone wanted desperately to be a star. He knocked on many doors only to be told he couldn’t speak well enough to be an actor. No agent would represent him. So he decided to write his own film and play the leading character. Once again he started knocking on doors. And one by one, the movie houses turned him down. Determined to get his movie made, Stallone persisted until finally a studio agreed to buy the script. The condition was that Stallone would not act in it. The studio offered him more money than he’d made in his entire career. He turned them down. After years of persistence someone finally said ‘yes’ and agreed to make the movie. And so began the phenomenal success of Rocky.
Most people who have experienced great success have first made dozens, hundreds, sometimes even thousands of attempts before finally hitting the jackpot. Truly successful people don’t see failure the way the majority of people see it. Nor do they attach the experience to themselves and see failure as a character flaw. Rather they see failure as opportunity. If something doesn’t work it simply means that there must be another way. A better way. The opportunity is in discovering what that better might be. As training guru Dale Carnegie once put it, ‘The successful man will profit from his mistakes and try again in a different way.’
We know Thomas Edison as the inventor of the light bulb. This invention changed our world. What most of us don’t know is that Edison made over ten thousands attempts before he actually came up with the correct solution for. It was the ten thousand ‘failures’ that enabled that one successful attempt to be possible. And so there was electric light!
Psychologists argue that humans are concerned with two things: being right and looking good. We refer to this as the ego. It is our ego that cannot handle the concept of being wrong or losing face. If we perceive ‘failure’ as an illustration of our inability to do something correctly, the ego will bite, scratch, kick and scream like a tantrum-throwing child to avoid being subjected to it. And since most of us are driven by ego, consciously or not, the idea of trying something new is often a terrifying thought. Venturing into the unknown means to risk getting it wrong. What if it doesn’t work out? What if I’m not good enough? What if I make an idiot of myself? What if I fail?
A friend of mine recently started up a company selling computers online. He is thirty years old and found the financial pressures so great he had to move back in with his parents because he couldn’t make the rent. He worked long hours with little reward. Finally, he decided he’d had enough. He closed up shop and got out the IT industry entirely. Some may view this as a failure. Some may even think of him as a failure. He chose not to go down that path.
Instead, he realized the benefits of the experience and how he could pass that knowledge on to others. He is now a qualified financial advisor for a multi-national company providing financial guidance to others who are looking to start their own company. Not only is he working less hours and enjoying his new career, he is also experiencing great financial success. Rather than moping around feeling sorry for himself and cursing his bad luck, he chose to view ‘failure’ as an opportunity. As a result he is now adding value to the lives of others, as well as his own.
To change our perception about something will just as quickly change the outcome. To reframe our thoughts in an instant is a powerful tool. It enables us to move through the fear that otherwise can paralyses us. What separates the extraordinary people from the ordinary is their ability to do this. For successful people there is no such thing as failure. Only opportunity.
Donald Trump has experienced the absolute highs and lows in business including what many of us would consider major ‘failures’. Trump has gone from mega-wealthy to bankruptcy to being even wealthier that he was originally. Had he allowed the fear of being bankrupt to affect his judgment and his ability to take action there is no way he could have gone on to not only rebuild his wealth but exceed it ten times over. The idea that many of us have about failure only breeds fear and this leads us to inaction, or at best to continue doing something the way we’ve always done it.
Occasionally it’s a matter of taking a leap of faith. Even if it doesn’t work out the way we might have planned at least we we’re not sitting around wondering ‘what if’. As soon as we start to perceive our failures as merely unexpected opportunities, taking steps, big or small, towards our goals becomes much easier.
Failure doesn’t have to be a dirty word. To speak openly about our bumpy journeys has the potential to inspire others to move from inaction to action. There is nothing shameful about taking risks in life and attempting to express the very greatness that lies in all of us. It’s always great to hear about someone who is enjoying a ride on the wave of good luck but it’s a much more interesting story to hear about success that was hard won in the face of adversity, through sheer determination and persistence. Inspirational, even. Stories about overcoming almost insurmountable obstacles in pursuit of one’s dream are always the movies worth paying for.
‘Overnight’ successes spend years working their way to the top. When singer Jessica Simpson first auditioned for a spot with The Mickey Mouse Club, the launching pad for most teen pop musical careers, the producers opted to go with another star-in-the-making by the name of Britney Spears. Simpson was devastated. When most of us would have curled up in a ball and retreated to the nearest corner, Simpson shrugged it off and got back out there. Actress Naomi Watts almost threw in her acting career after 15 years of being second choice for leading roles. She is now one of the most successful Australian actresses in Hollywood.
Most people who are successful today are in that position because of their attitude towards failure. And almost all would have experienced failure many times over. Unfortunately, these are not the stories that are often told or remembered. Until now. We can take immediate action by lifting the veil of secrecy around our recent botched attempts at something and share it with others. By starting to think like a successful person we begin to experience life as a successful person.
So if you’ve hit a snag and you’re contemplating tossing in the towel and giving up, stop and yell out the other ‘f’ word as loud as you can. You can then move on to checking your perceptions and start looking for the opportunities instead. Ask yourself, what can I learn from this and how can I do this differently? Remember the failings of the mega-successful like Sylvester Stallone and Thomas Edison. Failure will then start to look much less scary and success much more achievable. So get failing and persist, persist, persist!