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Is failure a recipe for success?

By Sam Di Sano on 23 September 2018NSWstaffroomLeadershipMotivation

Although Abraham Lincoln is considered the iconic American president, it is often pointed out that he had numerous failures in his career prior to his election as president in 1860. The key purpose of acknowledging his failures however is to highlight his inspirational ability to persevere and overcome these setbacks prior to becoming a successful lawyer and politician.

Lincoln's list of failures:

  • 1831 - Lost his job
  • 1832 - Defeated in run for Illinois State Legislature
  • 1833 - Failed in business
  • 1835 - Sweetheart died
  • 1836 - Had a nervous breakdown
  • 1838 - Defeated in run for Illinois House Speaker
  • 1843 - Defeated in run for nomination for U.S. Congress
  • 1848 - Lost re-nomination for Congress after election in 1846
  • 1849 - Rejected for land officer position
  • 1854 - Defeated in run for U.S. Senate
  • 1856 - Defeated in run for nomination for Vice President
  • 1858 - Again defeated in run for U.S. Senate


  • 1860 - Elected US President

Is failure necessary?

The renowned author Deepak Chopra, believes too much is made of failure in isolation and we should concentrate more on both successes and failures rather than failure alone. He believes that key learning is more about interpretation, reflection and subsequent personal responses.   Challenges, frustrations, obstacles and roadblocks can be, according to Chopra, interpreted as evolutionary.

This sense of evolution as Chopra puts it, requires adaptation and a new course of action, not just a repeat application. As he describes it - you don’t just get back on the horse again, because repeating the same action mostly leads to the same result - another fall.  There was also a recent New Yorker article where the author explains that, based on a 2009 study of venture-backed businesses, “past failure really just predicts future failure.”  

Failure does not have to be an inevitable part of success but avoiding it is not as easy as simply taking steps to avoid it in the first place, or anticipating and planning for it.  

Business and technology throw up some interesting case studies. It is true we live in an age where it is probably easier to launch a start-up than ever before, and with the world of crowd-funding, probably just as easy to finance that idea, but sustaining it is a completely different notion. It is also true that most start-ups and most first-up entrepreneurs fail and fold.  A late-twentieth century study of some three thousand entrepreneurs found that 81% thought their businesses had at least a 70% chance of success, and that there was no chance they would ever fail. Needless to say, entrepreneurs are nothing if they are not incredibly over confident, which tends to explain why there are so many start-ups in the first place.

The key questions to ask

Experiencing failure is however only part of the equation. Goethe confounded me in first year Psychology with “Experience is only half of experience” - a WTF moment before WTF even became a thing!  Learning from failure is the key.  By using this knowledge, you ask yourself key questions and then follow them up with the appropriate response. It’s a cyclical process of having the experience, reflecting on it, asking questions of yourself and ultimately being moved to some form of action. Many a teacher would confirm this reflective pedagogy as sound teaching practice.  

Chopra’s solution is a powerful one which provides three possible outcomes - what I earlier termed a ‘movement to action’.  Says Chopra, you either decide to fix it; , decide to put up with it or decide to walk away, each incredibly empowering.

Every failure can be an opportunity for renewal and progress if reflected upon wisely.  Just look at Abraham Lincoln.

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