Why failure is critical for success

Here’s why

Bill Gates’ first business was a failure.

Steven Spielberg was twice rejected from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.

Jack Ma was rejected from Harvard no fewer than ten times and even lost out on a job at KFC. Today he is the founder and CEO of Alibaba, the world’s largest retailer.

Failure is an inevitability that comes to all of us, yet so many live in constant fear of it. We are trained to fear failure as a reflection of who we are, rather than just something we experienced.

It can be a horrible, demoralising experience…but it doesn’t have to be.

Success and failure

Many traits you might normally expect to be strong predictors of success simply don’t apply. For example, high intelligence does not necessarily indicate success. That’s not to say it isn’t important, but intelligence often takes a supporting role to other traits, such as self-discipline.

To understand this further, I began researching all the aspects of an individual’s personality that might help bring about their extraordinary success.

This led me and my colleagues at Zircon to interview 42 people at the very top of their respective fields, including entrepreneurs, politicians and Olympians.

We took their answers, analysed them, and the results were striking.

Our Winning Attitudes research uncovered ten winning traits that led to their success. These included: a burning ambition; dogged determination; a healthy optimism; unwavering belief; intrinsic generosity; the ability to create mutual respect; a maximising of opportunities; disruptive thoughts; constant curiosity and single-minded focus.

We also found that while some of these traits led to success in one field, an entirely different combination might be advantageous in another.

Successful entrepreneurs, for example, tend to max-out on constant curiosity and disruptive thought.

Olympians, however, require an entirely different set of traits: unwavering belief; single-minded focus and a burning ambition. In fact what is advantageous in an entrepreneur can be a hindrance when it comes to a sporting career.

Failing to win

Just as intriguing, however, was the discovery that of the study’s 42 participants, 22 had experienced a moment of complete loss or failure.

They experienced a moment that had brought them low, and it had galvanised them.

These experiences, and their corresponding traits, create a pragmatic attitude towards the inevitable setbacks and failures that come along the way.

Goldie Sayers is a three times Olympian and holder of the British record for the women’s javelin.

In short, Goldie Sayers is a winner.

And yet, like so many of us, she has experienced difficulties, setbacks, and failure.

Over her career she had eight operations, and was twice told she would never throw a javelin again. Rather than give up, she took a different approach, instead choosing to take failures in her stride.

“When I face setbacks, I see it as an opportunity,” she told our researcher.

“Initially, yes, you are upset, but you channel this into problem solving. Having setbacks actually creates momentum. Today is better than yesterday.”

Perhaps the most important part of her attitude towards failure though is her ability to learn from her mistakes.

“Injuries sometimes are accidents, but some happen for a reason,” she said.

“So, use it to learn something and don’t do it again. I guess it gives you another tool in your toolbox. I think failure is learning but only if you are brutally honest with yourself and identify the reasons why. It’s the people who use excuses or justify not doing well that don’t learn anything from it.”

It is this refusal to give up, and determination to learn from the experience that propels people like Sayers to success.

Ultimately, failure leads us to knowledge of self, and not just of our weaknesses. Failure has the potential to reveal our strengths as well, as long as we allow ourselves to be open to the lesson.

If we close ourselves away in a misguided attempt to ignore or conceal that failure, then we learn nothing from it.

An opportunity to learn, grow and further ourselves as human beings will have been lost.

Know yourself

The self-knowledge gained through failure can be invaluable, but there are ways to a better understanding of yourself without having to go through painful experiences.

For example, 20 of our 42 Winning Attitudes interviewees didn’t experience a moment of deep loss or failure.

Instead, they all reported benefitting from a profoundly positive experience at one moment of their lives. Like those who had experienced a profound negative experience, this positive moment inspired them down the paths that lead to success.

However, if you are trying to get an understanding of both yourself and those you work with, I realise that neither sitting around waiting for a profound event nor lengthy counselling sessions probing your childhoods are terribly practical solutions.

This is why at our sister company BeTalent we have created a 15-minute Winning Attitudes questionnaire to help identify those traits that will help that person to succeed and reach their full potential.

The knowledge gained can be invaluable, revealing how people draw upon their inner capabilities, and what drives them.

In the end, knowledge is power, and knowledge of yourself is the most powerful knowledge of all.

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