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Thoughts and ideas from Be Known
A Successful Perspective On Failure
April 8, 2019 at 12:00 AM
by William V. Anderson
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We’ve talked about success, but what about failure? A few days ago, my colleague wrote a piece about success. How to define it, measure it, even celebrate it. I am writing about failure. No, not as a rebuttal, but as another way to look at success. There is no such thing as success without failure.

I am reading a book about craftsmen and artists (A Craftsman's Legacy). You may not believe you are either, but I beg the difference. We are all artists in our own way. When you are asked to draw a tree, what ends up on the page is what you are able to see and translate onto a page. It may not be Rembrandt (a very famous artist you should be familiar with and if not look him up), but very few people are on the level of Rembrandt or Monet or Picasso (more artists you should be familiar with), but it doesn’t mean you are not an artist at some level. In the book I’m reading, the author spends a great deal of time talking about failure and how it is simply a part of the whole.

Show me somebody who never makes a mistake and I will show you somebody who never does anything. Many claim to have made that statement, so I will refrain from giving any one of them credit, but the statement is true. Nobody has success without their share of failures. Mark Zuckerberg made many mistakes before Facebook worked. Fred Smith wrote a paper about an overnight delivery service for a class at Yale. His professor decided to not even give him a “C” because the idea had to be feasible. Steve Jobs probably made the absolute worst computer ever, the NeXT computer. The point is: all successful people make mistakes, yet we look at them as absolute geniuses. They failed many times on their paths to success.

I believe we cannot measure our successes without having something to gauge them by. If we start pursuing a dream and quickly achieve that dream, was it really a dream at all or was it just an item on a “to do” list?

Many years ago, Adrienne and I had a task in front of us. We had to sell an outdoor theatrical production that had, quite frankly, fallen on hard times. She, as the director of marketing, would come up with ideas and present them to me, but was always worried about funding for these ideas. I would say funding was my problem and don’t let that get in the way of your creative dreams for selling the show. Her concerns about funding, while valid, were tantamount to worrying about failing. You cannot be worried about failing. You are going to fail. Get over it. Just like we had to figure out a way of funding these ideas (which, by the way, most worked out very well, we had a record setting season of ticket sales!), I did not want her to be worried about it. Failures are a part of life and they are not necessarily a bad part.

We live in a world of instant gratification these days. Ask me a question and I can probably get you the answer, on my phone, in a matter of seconds. This has impacted our abilities to understand and appreciate the process of working toward an answer or a dream. In graduate school, my professors were known for giving us research assignments which required us to visit all five libraries on campus. Yes, five distinct libraries, separated by blocks and sometimes a river. Now, during the spring and fall, this was not too bad. But the winters in Iowa City were brutal! Invariably, you would be left without the one piece that would solve the entire puzzle and would have to revisit all the libraries in order to find that one piece. But, while making those return trips, having “failed” the first time, discoveries were made which made all the difference to the research. The failures lead to an even better understanding of the answer you were searching for, but you would have never gotten there if you had not failed in the first place.

Think about it. We are graded on our failures. Let me explain. You are taking a test, be it in school or at work or any other place we find ourselves being tested. When you begin the test, you are given 100 points. But the first time you get an answer wrong, you have points taken away for your failure to know the answer to that question. At the end of the test your score reflects your failures in not knowing the answer. Now, let’s take this one step further and maybe I will be able to prove my point. You are given the test back and what do you do? You don’t look at the answers you got correct! No. You look at your failures. You see what you got wrong AND THAT IS WHERE YOU LEARN. You are learning from your failures. We all do.

We continue to learn our entire lives. I used to think I would make fewer “mistakes” as I got older. That has proven to not be true and I think there is a reason for that. The older I get (and my granddaughters think I am old enough), the more risks I am willing to take and thus, the more failures. As we mature in our efforts, we often take greater risks. We become more confident in what we are willing to dream about. We have learned much from our past experiences, but those experiences have also taught us to be willing to fail in order to learn and succeed.

A craftsman is more than willing to show you the beautiful cabinet he has made for your china. You will, no doubt, marvel at the perfectly matched grain patterns and the joints that have been so meticulously cut and glued together. The perfect stain that brings out all the amazing aspects of the piece of oak and matches the remainder of the furniture. But take a moment to “look behind the curtain” and you will see years of attempts at getting that mortise and tenon joint correct; wasted pieces of oak that had the wrong stain on them, cabinets built the wrong size even if only a quarter of an inch off. All those failures lead to the success you now have sitting in your dining room to hold the heirloom hand painted china belonging to your great great grandmother.

Yes, celebrate your successes. We all need to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. But our failures lead us to those successes. I guess you don’t need to jump up and down or do a happy dance when you fail, but those failures are just as important. They provide you the learning and the knowledge to allow you to get to your next level of success.