What is Failing Forward?

The world these days is a competitive place where success is the only currency that counts. Failure, which is usually considered the opposite of success, or even an obstacle on the road to it, is seen as a something to be avoided at all costs.

But are our failures always such disasters? Not necessarily – and it may well be time to review our opinions about failure as a concept.

Contrary to popular belief, failure actually isn’t the opposite of success, but rather a necessary part of it. Failure doesn’t need to be avoided. Instead, it should be embraced, because we can learn from it and become stronger in the future as a result.

In the book, Failing Forward, author John C. Maxwell tells us why failure can be a good thing. You will see why failure is an opportunity, what it can teach you and how you can overcome it. Learning to fail today will help you be successful tomorrow.

While most of us do our best to avoid failure, most entrepreneurs know better. The majority of successful businesspeople attribute their success to their ability to persevere after failures. In fact, it takes entrepreneurs an average of 3.8 failed ventures before they manage to start a successful business.

These entrepreneurs recognize that even if their business eventually fails, they’ll be in a better position than they were when they started. But if their fear of failure had stopped them at the beginning, they wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.

In the real world, a single failure doesn’t always mean the end of the road. Take Sergio Zyman, a marketing executive for Coca-Cola in the 1980s. When Zyman launched the new Diet Coke range, it was hugely popular.

This success bolstered Zyman’s standing in the company and gave him more confidence in his daring ideas. So later, when Coca-Cola wanted to introduce a new formula for Coke, Zyman proposed to introduce it under the name “New Coke.” Zyman believed the new idea would sell so well that he convinced Coca-Cola to stop producing the old version.

To Zyman’s surprise, New Coke was a complete flop. The rebranded bottles failed to sell, costing Coca-Cola approximately $100 million, and Zyman his job. To recover from this blow, Coca-Cola reintroduced their flagship drink under a new name: Coca-Cola Classic.

As it turned out, Coca-Cola Classic was a huge hit. The drink became more popular than ever, and Zyman’s failure to transform the brand in the first instance ended up leading to a great success for the company in the long run. In 1993, Coca-Cola chairman Roberto Goizueta rehired Zyman, acknowledging that daring thinkers can’t be right every time.

While we largely assume failure can only lead to negative outcomes, the opposite is often true. Many chance discoveries and new opportunities have emerged from failures. This was certainly the case for legendary inventor Thomas Edison.

Edison worked for years to improve the telegraph machine, with little success. But along the way, he discovered something else entirely. By making certain adjustments to his failed telegraph machines, he was able to record sound that could be played back again and again.

Edison used his lack of success in one pursuit as an opportunity to develop something entirely new. Twentieth-century author William Marston referred to experiences like Edison’s as “drawing dividends from failure.” Marston, who was an inventor as well as a psychologist, believed that this ability was crucial to success.

Beyond opening our eyes to new possibilities, failure can be a powerful incentive to work hard and change our lives. Consider the story of the billionaire founder of Home Depot, Bernie Marcus. In 1978, he was fired from his role as CEO of hardware chain Handy Dan as a result of internal conflicts.

At the time, Marcus’s parents required his financial support to make ends meet. Marcus was determined never to fall victim to a corporate power struggle again. He enlisted Arthur Blank, a coworker that had also been fired from Handy Dan, and together they opened their own hardware store the following year. Today, their store – Home Depot – is known as one of the most successful retail endeavors in history.

Most of the time, failures occur as a result of factors that we can’t control. When that happens, we don’t need to blame ourselves, we just need to take responsibility for finding new solutions.

The author recounts the story of his friend, Greg Horn, whose supermarket was destroyed in the 1997 Kentucky floods. Ironically, Horn was insured for almost every type of damage and theft – except flood damage.

Obviously, the floods were beyond Horn’s control. But he wasn’t deterred by his unfortunate circumstances. Rather than giving up, Horn took responsibility for his situation and resolved to get his store up and running again as quickly as possible.

While continuing to support all 80 of his employees, Horn got to work on fixing the store. The repairs cost him $1 million, but he was able to reopen the store only 21 days after the flood.

Horn’s story shows that we can only shape our future by taking responsibility for our circumstances. For another example, think of American tennis player Roger Crawford. Crawford was born without many of his fingers and toes, a condition known as ectrodactylism.

In spite of his condition, Crawford took the attitude that he was still responsible for his future. He chased his dream of becoming a professional tennis player, eventually receiving certification from the American Professional Tennis Association as the first American tennis professional with a disability.

Crawford attributes his success to the responsibility he takes for his own life, which ran a very different course to another man he knew with ectrodactylism. Unlike Crawford, the man thought of himself as a victim of unfair circumstances, and he felt bitter about the world – an attitude that prevented him from succeeding.

Could you imagine starting a new project and aiming to fail? Probably not; most of us prefer to avoid making mistakes. And yet, failure always has the potential to create instructive, even inspiring, learning experiences.

The power of embracing failure is illustrated poignantly in an anecdote from David Bayles and Ted Orland’s 1993 book Art and Fear: a ceramics teacher divides her class in two and tells one half that they’ll be graded on the quantity of art they make, and so should make as many pieces as they can. The other half are told to focus on creating one piece, the quality of which will determine their grade.

Though the latter group spent longer crafting a single work of art, they were outshone by the first group, which produced pieces of notably higher quality. Because they were able to learn from their mistakes with each subsequent piece they made, the students in the first group were able to develop both their skills and their creative ideas along the way.

It’s important to note that we only learn from failure when we’re determined to understand it. One strip from the comic Peanuts reflects on this phenomenon.

Charlie Brown is building a sand castle at the beach, which gets flattened by a wave. He looks down at the sand castle and knows there’s something to be learned from the situation – but he doesn’t attempt to figure out what the lesson is.

Like Charlie Brown, in the wake of failure many people tell themselves that they don’t have the time or energy to investigate what went wrong. But this simply puts us at risk of making the same mistake again. Identifying the causes of failure allows us to learn, grow and, in Charlie Brown’s case, build sand castles farther away from the waves.

When you drive across town, how often do you catch only green lights? Probably never, but that’s alright – it’s just a part of driving. How might life be if we saw our failures as red lights? They might stop us temporarily, but they aren’t a reason to give up on our destination.

Stay positive and carry on. 

Check out my related post: How to overcome your greatest fear?

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4 thoughts on “What is Failing Forward?

  1. Thank you for the very good posting, and the book recommendation. I think some people in the Western universe will rapidely have to change their minds, what success based living is. Success in the past was only for a few. All the other got blamed with different things. Its so easy making poor people believing they are rich. Its much more difficult making rich people clear their treasure depends on billion of poorest people’s daily work. Michael

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