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Business // Thinking Smart
David S. Chang

Failure Can Be The Best Teacher

When I was in high school, I heard a speaker say that the secret to success was by failing. It turns out he was right. I have learned much more from failure than success. Success actually can be a very poor teacher, especially if done through bad habits.

Bill Gates stated, “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

On the one hand, when people believe they can’t lose, they become complacent. Complacency forces people to be reactive, playing not to lose instead of being proactive and playing to win. Failure, on the other hand, can teach more about success than success itself. Here are the proper ways to “fail forward” so it launches you to success!

1) Understand and accept failure as a part of life. W. E. Hickson coined the phrase, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” No matter how hard you may work, failure can happen. Successful people understand the reality of failure and the role it plays in their success. If Arianna Huffington hadn’t failed in a California gubernatorial bid against Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003, or if her book hadn’t been rejected 36 times by publishers, there would be no Huffington Post, one of the largest Web companies in the world. She states, “If we accept failure as part of life rather than something we try to avoid all the time, it can make a big difference in the way we choose to live our lives.”

2) Learn from it. Making mistakes is OK, as long as the same one isn’t made twice and you learn from it. Failing is not the opposite of success, but a stepping stone to it. As plebes (freshmen) at West Point, we were all required to take boxing. I learned early on the best way to learn to block and duck is to get punched in the face. Failure shouldn’t be feared, but embraced. “Fail fast” and “embrace failure” are the top buzzwords in Silicon Valley. In fact, there is an annual failure conference there! The goal is for attendees to “study their own and others’ failures and prepare for success.” Failing is part of the learning experience. One Silicon Valley entrepreneur summed it up by saying, “We’re here trying to ‘manufacture fail’ on a regular basis, and we think that’s how you learn. Getting used to that, bouncing back from that, being able to figure out what people hate and turn that into what people love … if you’re not willing to take the risk of failing and not experience failure, you’re never going to figure out what the right path is to success.”

3) Learn the difference between quitting and failing. Thomas Edison was hearing-impaired, and his teachers said he was “too stupid to learn anything.” Imagine if Edison quit working on the light bulb after the first failure. The world would be a different place! After inventing the light bulb, he stated, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” He never quit. He knew that failure was a process and quitting was losing. You can’t succeed at anything if you quit.

Failure is a process and an event toward success. Seeing failure as the end is quitting, but seeing failure as a means to success is “true success.”

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