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Success from failure?

If you want to succeed, first you may have to learn to fail.

Before she became a household name, J.K. Rowling was a welfare recipient struggling with depression. Her long manuscript about a wizard had been rejected by dozens of publishers. We all know the end of this story: The Harry Potter books turned Rowling into the most financially successful female writer on the planet.

Looking back, Rowling sees her initial failure as a liberating experience and key to future success. “Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential,” she said to a class of graduating college students. “I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I truly belonged.”

Failures are a necessary part of being human

In fact, most people who achieve tremendous success do so on the backs of their previous personal failures. When Jerry Seinfeld first tried standup comedy, he was jeered and booed off the stage. Bill Gates’ first business Traf-O-Data was a miserable failure, and Albert Einstein was once believed to be mentally disabled because he didn’t speak until the age of four.

Society’s deeply ingrained notion that failure is a bad thing doesn’t serve us, says Agustín Fuentes, a professor of Anthropology at University of Notre Dame who studies human and complex social mammal evolution. “Learning through failure is actually a critical part of our social lives, not just for humans but for many organisms,” Fuentes says.

“When you fail, you actually learn a lot more frequently than when you succeed because you’re able to see what you did wrong and improve upon it.” Learning from your failures in order to grow is known as “productive failure.”

Embracing your failures

Rather than rejecting failure and trying to avoid it, people need to learn how to celebrate it, explains Ralph Heath, author of Celebrating Failure, The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes and Thinking Big. Heath began to appreciate “failure” in the late 1970s when he founded an ad agency. He noticed that whenever his business went through periods of rapid growth, the agency also encountered many failures. But when the business didn’t experience growth and played it safe, they weren’t failing as much. “I began to make a positive connection between the two, and to see failure as a benefit because it meant we were doing good things.”


“When you fail, you actually learn a lot more frequently than when you succeed because you’re able to see what you did wrong and improve upon it.” – Agustín Fuentes, Professor of Anthropology at University of Notre Dame


While running his company, Heath encouraged his employees to take risks and try new things. And while this led to the company’s long-term success, it also led to numerous failures along the way.

“There is no way you can begin a startup business of any kind without making some errors or mistakes,” explains Heath. Taking risks is a part of the process. “If you aren’t out there taking risks and exploring what’s new, you can become irrelevant very quickly,” he says.

Our acceptance of failure needs to be taught

Fuentes believes we have to make a shift in how failure is treated during childhood. “Right upfront, there’s a problem with our education system. We put fear into people about being wrong,” he says. “If we don’t engender in young kids this notion that it’s okay to fail, then we create a problem because as you age and enter the workforce, you’re going to be hit with a lot of failure. And if you don’t have the coping mechanisms to deal with that, it can be pretty serious.”

Success from failure

Starting at any age, there are several things you can do to try to change your perspective of failure.

1. Recognize effort over ability.

Whenever you start or learn something new, whether it be a business or a new class, you need to take pride and appreciate your effort, rather than measure your progress or success.

2. Practice self-compassion when you fail.

When you make a mistake or fail, it’s important to treat yourself with kindness and compassion. “Failing is all part of the learning process, you need to tell yourself,” says Fuentes. It’s critical to value yourself solely because you’re a human being, and accept that failure is part of the human experience.

3. Surround yourself with like-minded people.

In order to take risks and experience failure along the way without falling apart, it’s important to have people in your life who also recognize that failure is a necessary learning experience, and who offer encouragement each time you fail.

The main attitude adjustment to make in your thinking is to equate failure with success. “But people don’t normally put those two things together,” says Fuentes. “People think of failure as the opposite of success, but if you take the long view, you will begin to understand that in order to be successful, you need to experience a substantial amount of failure first.”