An Essay on Failure

This is an essay I wrote several years ago, and now is as good a time as any to drag it out.


Have you ever heard of me?


Actually, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. I’m not very famous and few people do know who I am. So far in my life I just haven’t been that successful. Or perhaps it’s because I haven’t been a big enough failure.

Seriously, one of the best ways to achieve real success is to fail, repeatedly fail at what you’re trying to do. If you don’t believe me, research the life of someone you admire, someone you would like to emulate. Odds are you will find failure at some point in their lives.

“You always pass failure on the way to success.” — Mickey Rooney

For example, I think one of the most creative people who ever lived was Walt Disney. Yet Walt’s first business venture ended in bankruptcy. His greatest success — Mickey Mouse — was actually born out of desperation when his star character (Oswald the Lucky Rabbit) was taken from him by his distributor. Years later he was forced to take an extended vacation due to a mental breakdown, he was deeply in debt several times, and just before World War II his studio was wracked by a costly and divisive labor strike. That is enough turmoil to stop most ordinary businessmen.

Or how about President Harry Truman? After returning to Kansas City after his World War I service, Truman and a friend opened a haberdashery. Initially they did well, but unfortunately they ignored the signs of a business slowdown and were caught in the recession of 1921-22. Refusing to sell when they could’ve recouped their investment, they finally closed with a loss of at least $25,000. Truman’s partner ultimately took bankruptcy; Truman narrowly avoided it himself but was strapped for money for twenty years as he struggled to pay off his share of the debt. And of course, Truman’s presidency was a virtual case study of difficult decisions and extreme political challenges — “To Err is Truman” became a popular expression of the day. Yet his decision-making has been vindicated and today his record of public service is much admired.

“People fail forward to success.” — Mary Kay Ash

So what is it about failure that teaches us about success? I think it’s simply because we learn so much more from our failures than we do from our successes. Ordinary success can come from being in the right place at the right time, being born to the right circumstances, or dumb luck. On the other hand, success from failure is earned.

Once aware of this fact, failure can be used to one’s advantage. The astute businessman will use failed components to make his/her products more reliable, will use complaints to improve customer service, and will use economic hard times to become a better manager.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” — Thomas A. Edison

If I were a businessman, I would establish an organizational award entitled “The Perfect Failure.” It would look for an idea that initially sounded promising, and yet circumstances doomed it to failure. The award would go to the person who recognized that the idea was indeed failing and killed it at that point, before it could do any real harm to my organization.

End it, learn from it, and move forward. And if the next idea doesn’t work either, well, just think how much will be learned!

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” — Thomas A. Edison



All quotations are from “The Quotations Page,”

Ferrell, Robert H. “Harry S. Truman and the Modern American Presidency,” Library of American Biography, Longman, 1983.

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