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#sowhoknew: Why failure is the key to success

In the movie Apollo 13, the NASA flight director is famously quoted as saying, “failure is not an option”. Well, in business, there are so many variables at play that it more or less guarantees that failure isn’t just an option at some stage, it’s pretty much a certainty. And yet it’s one of those truly annoying idioms which gets blurted out with alarming regularity.

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LinkedIn is awash with articles and lists of how to be successful in business, but there is very little written about why falling flat on your ass can be a good thing. According to a recent article in Entrepreneur, we all need to start acting like scientists. To a boffin, failure is just another data point which will ultimately lead to the right solution, or as the author of the piece puts it, “For the scientist, a negative result is not an indication that they are a bad scientist. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Proving a hypothesis wrong is often just as useful as proving it right because you learned something along the way.”

There is a school of thought (which I subscribe to) that people who enter into a project with a fear of failure are actually more likely to do so because their negative mindset will affect the outcome. Firstly, you are closed off to creativity because anything innovative automatically carries a higher element of risk. If it hasn’t been done before then it is, by its very nature, unproven and hence is more likely to go belly up. And secondly, if you do try something unique and it initially fails you are more likely to give up rather than try again and realise the full potential of the idea.

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The real trick here is to teach yourself to accept failure, learn from it and move on. Dr. John C. Maxwell is a world expert on leadership and his key insight is very simple. It’s all down to perseverance. He cites the example of Thomas Edison who was apparently asked, whilst developing the prototype for the light bulb, how he could keep going after continued failure. His reply? “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

But it’s not just the likes of Edison who failed spectacularly at some stage in their career. The history books are littered with examples of frustrating foundering. Walt Disney (lost his first job for being a ‘dreamer’), Abraham Lincoln (one of four US Presidents who went bankrupt) and Henry Ford (burned though his initial investment without producing a single car) are just a few notable examples.

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Yet each and every one of them remained resilient and adhered to the five golden rules of making failure work in your favour:

1. Reject rejection – Achievers know their self-worth and never consider themselves a failure even when things don’t play out the way they wanted.
2. Take blame – Never inculpate others, accept the situation for what it is, suck it up and set about making it right.
3. Failure is temporary – A huge chasm from which you can never get out or a stepping stone to something greater? Guess which route winners choose?
4. Realistic expectations – We all fail from time to time. Nothing and no-one is perfect. Accept it.
5. Focus on strengths / diminish weaknesses – Recognise your talents, focus on them and if you have flaws then try and work with people who can make up for your shortcomings.

Let’s be honest, we’ve all been there at some stage. That hideous moment when something goes wrong and you simply want the ground to swallow you up. After almost 30 years in business I’ve lost track of the times that I have cocked up (although I’m sure there are a few people out there who might like to remind me!). But the ones who go on to win are the ones who pick themselves up off the ground, dust themselves down and simply carry on. Or as Sir Richard Branson puts, “I will work day and night to avoid failure, but if I can’t, I’ll pick myself up the next day. The most important thing for entrepreneurs is not to be put off by failure.”

So when and how have you screwed up and what did you do to get back on track?

Steve Blakeman

Steve Blakeman is the Global Media Lead - Nestlé at Mindshare. Previously, he was the Managing Director - Global Accounts, OMD Europe. Previously, he was the CEO, Asia Pacific – OMD. Prior to that, he was Global Chief Integration Strategy Officer (Asia Pacific) for IPG Mediabrands (Initiative & Universal McCann). He has also had stints as worked as Managing Partner at Omnicom Media Group owned media agency, PHD where he successfully launched their second office in the UK. He began his career at JWT and has over two decades of experience in advertising, media and marketing communications.