Success Means Never Forgetting Your Failures

Last Updated Sep 27, 2010 1:12 PM EDT

FailureSome people never fail. They're the ones with no aspirations, no will to excel, no guts. Everyone likely to be reading this, however, fails. Repeatedly.

What we all have in common is the temptation to simply put it behind us and forget it ever happened. To spit failure out and get that bitter taste out of our mouths before it does any real damage to our self-confidence. As soon as possible, if not sooner.

But the strong and successful among us resist that urge because we know better. Painful as it is, we carry our failures around with us every day of our lives. Not as a badge of honor, although it's tempting to feel that way. We do it for two reasons.

First, failure is how we learn. Failure teaches us how to do things differently. How to do things better. As we discussed at length in 10 Ways Failure Leads to Success:

Failing to admit and learn from failure will only lead to more dramatic failure. The converse is also true: admitting and learning from failure will ultimately lead to success. Unfortunately, leaders seem to be allergic to the whole idea of admitting failure.
But there's actually an even more important lesson that failure teaches us. A more important reason to never forget that we've failed and will fail again. It reminds us that we're human. On the surface, that sounds almost too simple to be important. But that's a characteristic of most important lessons.

Being aware of your failures gives you a unique sense of empathy, humility, even humor, that others don't possess. It means approaching your job, each and every day, with a level of genuine openness to the ideas and positions of others, not in spite of the fact that they differ from yours, but because they do, because you know you might be wrong and they might be right.

It's tempting to think of this as a lesson for the young, but it's not. It's a lesson for all ages.

Take Steve Jobs, for example. It's easy to forget that he wasn't always the leadership icon he is today. While Apple did invent a truly breakthrough computer, the company's first decade was turbulent and Jobs' management style was so toxic that he was essentially forced out of the company. That was painful for Jobs. And his next venture, NeXT, lost a boatload of investment capital.

So, when Apple's acquisition of NeXT returned Jobs to the company he cofounded, he was a very different man. He was a far more mature and balanced individual than the one who was drummed out of the company 11 years before. Clearly, success and failure both contributed to that transformation.

Then there's Bill Gates. I worked for two companies that had considerable interaction with Gates and Microsoft. Suffice to say that I once thought of Gates as a ruthless tyrant and a childish one, at that. But Gates has suffered many difficult and personal attacks and yes, even defeats, over the years.

As I wrote a few years ago in Bill Gates Has Grown Up and Made Us Proud:

The once arrogant, ruthless, abusive executive has apparently changed. He's grown up. Gates has become a role model for wealthy executives-turned-philanthropists everywhere. Not only is he giving back to society in a big way, he's inspiring others to do the same.
What changed Gates? Honestly, I don't know. But I'm sure that failure played a role in changing his perspective, as it does with all of us. Those are just two examples, but every successful leader will point to failure as a key ingredient in their growth, maturity, and success.

People often confuse having courage with being fearless. Actually, nobody is fearless. Courage, on the other hand, means facing your fear and doing the right thing anyway. Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose. And once you've been through that a few times, it makes you a better and more successful person. But only as long as you never forget.

Image CC 2.0 courtesy Flickr user tinou bao