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Why failure is the gateway to success

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY It's definitely counterintuitive and maybe a bit ironic, but when you meet an experienced, successful executive who seems to have all the confidence in the world, chances are he's experienced the most humiliating defeat you can ever imagine.

That's because failure is the gateway to success. Here's how it works.

When you're young and new to the workforce, you revel in the gifts God gave you or the DNA you were fortunate enough to acquire that sets you apart. Maybe you're a genius, a talented designer, a natural with software, or have the gift of gab.

But an interesting thing happens as you progress through your career. You learn that everything isn't about you and your talents. That there's a huge business world with rules you don't understand. That there are lots of gifted people out there, most of whom see things very differently than you. That there's an incredible amount of competition for jobs, for customers, for business, for everything.

And before long, you begin to experience failure. So many unpleasant firsts. Like your first few job rejection letter. Your first less than stellar performance review. The first time you bomb in a presentation. The first time your proposal gets shot down or you lose a big account. And the first time you get passed over for a promotion.

Then you come across managers and executives that possess a unique quality you've never seen before. A way about them, a sort of worldly wisdom and confidence that only comes from experience. It comes from facing tough competition and winning big. It also comes from fighting the good fight and going down to defeat.

Perhaps that's the biggest surprise of all. That there are so many ways to fail and nobody can escape it.

Yes, getting out into the real world is a daunting, humbling experience. But here's the thing. That experience and all it entails, all the pain and loss, is absolutely necessary for you to become the successful professional, manager, executive, entrepreneur or business leader you have the potential to become.

Why that is, I have no idea. Sure, I've got some theories, but that's not really the point. The point is that it's true. It's sort of a right of passage that I think everybody must pass through on the way to becoming successful. I know I did.

When I was a young up-and-comer, one of my managers said I needed a few failures under my belt. That was his explanation for why I was passed over for a promotion. I had no idea what he was talking about. I thought he was wrong, thought I knew better. But many years and all sorts of defeats later, I understood what he was trying to tell me.

There are plenty of other examples. It's easy to forget that Steve Jobs wasn't always the iconic leader who brought Apple (AAPL) back from the brink of disaster and created the world's most valuable company. Apples' first decade was turbulent and Jobs' management style was so caustic and toxic that he was forced out of the company.

That was painful for Jobs. And his next venture, NeXT, lost a boatload of money. Years later, Jobs said, "I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me." Clearly, it changed him. The Steve Jobs who returned to Apple and turned it around was a different man who saw things differently. 

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I often point to Jobs and other famous executives who faced adversity and emerged as stronger executives and better leaders, but they're just metaphors for what we all have to go through. And until you pass through that gauntlet and come out the other side a changed person, you're probably not going to fulfill your potential, either.

The other day I passed by the television set when some famous VC was being interviewed on Bloomberg TV. I didn't know the guy or catch his name, but he essentially said that America has a uniquely innovative and entrepreneurial culture because of the way we deal with failure.

Personally, I think he's absolutely right. Once you've been knocked down a few times, you learn two very important lessons. First, that you're a flesh and blood human. That teaches you humility. Second, that it's not the end of the world, that there's nothing to be afraid of. That builds confidence.

With those two qualities under your belt, you're well on your way to becoming whatever it is you're capable of becoming. And that's a pretty great thing.

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