Why Failure Means Success

Last Updated Oct 23, 2008 12:55 PM EDT

mistakes.jpg Why are people afraid of failure? Failure's not just part of life, it's essential to life -- and to success. Henry Ford put it most eloquently: "Failure is the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently". You can't learn if you don't fail.

Anyone who thinks failing is bad should look at the serial failures of James Dyson, who created the bagless vacuum cleaner, and Thomas Edison. Dyson took five years and 5,127 prototypes before he got his vacuum cleaner right. But the 5,128th model was a huge success.

Edison claimed to have conducted 10,000 experiments before he made a light bulb that worked properly. But he ended up with 1,093 patents to his name and was a founder of General Electric, (now just called GE) one of the most successful companies of all time.

The fact is that the more you fail -- if you treat failure the right way -- the more you succeed. The point is to turn failure into learning by not making the same mistake twice. Edison made notes after every one of his 10,000 experiments and made sure he didn't make the same error a second time.

Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketball players ever, once said: "I've missed over 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot--and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed".

Failure is an essential ingredient of innovation -- if companies are risk averse, they'll never develop breakthrough products or create new markets.

Workplaces that punish failure end up with low-talent, low energy, responsibility-shirkers who expend most of their energy covering their backs and slavishly following bureaucratic procedures. These types of places strip people of pride and self-esteem.

Work is an integral part of life -- what we do in large part defines who we are. Workplaces where rules, systems, procedures and processes determine almost every action, or where there is no real opportunity for decision-making, strip people of the opportunity to be of worth. They do irreparable harm to individuals and to society.

(Photo by Wesley Fryer, CC2.0 )

  • Robin Stuart-Kotze

    Robin Stuart-Kotze is a founder of the consultancy Behavioural Science Systems, whose clients include P&O, BP, Oracle, and Johnson & Johnson. He’s also made his way in management, largely in the financial services sector in the UK and Canada. A distinguished academic with a PhD in organisational psychology, Robin co-wrote “Who Are Your Best People?” about effective talent management.