Failure is hands down the greatest teacher of all. Here’s why you should embrace it.
I know a guy who was suspended twice in the same season during his senior year of high school basketball.
That guy is me.
After a teammate and I stormed the refs locker room in a rage to complain about a late call, my coaches suspended me for the first half of the biggest game of the year against our rival Moeller. (They said our league would suspend me at least three games if they didn’t deliver any punishment.)
I took it on the chin and then at the end of that game missed what would have been the game-winning shot at the buzzer—another failure.
A few weeks later, I received a week suspension for putting my teammate into a headlock four hours before the game after he took my phone during shoot around. Plus the coaching staff cited other conduct detrimental to the team in their reasoning for the suspension.
I thought this penalty was way too harsh, but there was nothing I could do about it.
I couldn’t practice or play for an entire week. And then was moved from the starting lineup to the bottom of the depth-chart once the suspension ended. That was not only a heck of a failure but also embarrassing.
My playing time and stats took a major hit. I could never get into a rhythm on the court and build my trust back with the coaches.
We ended up 10-12 as a team. And after scoring 16 points the first game, my minutes plummeted and I ended up averaging 4.3 points per game for the season. Yikes!
I consider that basketball season a major failure in my effort, attitude, and results. And I couldn’t bounce back from that year because it was my last year of competitive athletics.
What I put thousands of hours into to improve my skills on the court, I could never get another season to redeem myself.
Deep inside me I knew I didn’t want to waste another opportunity like I did during my senior year of basketball. I became obsessive about giving college everything I had and staying focused.
That’s what failure taught me: to seize the moment.
My performance skyrocketed as I turned my fate around in college to graduated summa cum laude with a 3.97 GPA and unlimited career options—until I committed to being an entrepreneur.
And this serves a good point. Sometimes you won’t recover from your failures in the current situation, but they will prepare you for your future.
I learned through that final basketball season that failure is not only a part of life, it’s the greatest teacher of all.
Failure Teaches Best
Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose. – Bill Gates
Failure is a great teacher, and I think when you make mistakes and you recover from them and you treat them as valuable learning experiences, then you’ve got something to share. – Steve Harvey
Compare these two quotes and the takeaway is obvious: Failure teaches best and success can’t teach worth a damn.
Why though? Let’s break it down.
I believe failure gets through to us so well because it forces us to change.
To stop failing we know we need to try a different approach to get different results. Be more aggressive or less. Go at a faster pace or slower pace. Read a book to learn something new.
For example, we must build our network if we want to get our dream job and put a stop to interview rejections. We must spend less if we want to have peace about our finances. And we must have the courage to ask the attractive person for a coffee date if we ever want a serious relationship to develop.
This idea that change is necessary to advance applies personally and in business. These three startup case studies highlight how failure can lead to major success once companies take a different approach.
However, the reason short-term success is dangerous is it lies to us and tells us we can stay the same and continue to do well. That’s what Bill Gates is saying in the quote above.
For example, eating unhealthy food in college but staying skinny because you had a fast metabolism tricks you to believe you can eat like crap forever. Though when you get middle-aged and your metabolism slows down, your weight balloons because you didn’t adjust your diet.
And for a business reference, Blockbuster didn’t evolve so Netflix destroyed it. Same with old taxi companies getting bulldozed by Uber. Blockbuster and the taxi companies previous success sabotaged their future right before their eyes.
On the other side of changing and improving your approach is happiness and success. That’s what it takes.
So the reason failure is the greatest teacher, if you allow it to be, is it pounds you over the head with this message to evolve until you get it.
And don’t miss the key phrase if you allow yourself to learn from failure, it’s the best teacher.
If you don’t have the mindset to learn from it, then you’ll fail over and over again, feel like a loser, and be nowhere closer to your goals than when you started.
One of my favorite terms to describe using failure for future success is the term fail forward.
There’s a wrong and a right way to fail.
The wrong way is to feel sorry for yourself and call it quits. This is literally the worst thing you can do for yourself.
That accomplishes nothing for your attitude or your future.
The right way is to fail forward—the best thing you can do for yourself.
Failing forward means even though you didn’t accomplish your goals, you made progress or gained experience. And you brush off your bruises to keep going toward your goal with what you’ve accomplished so far.
A politician who fails forward loses election after election but carries on to eventually become known as one of the greatest presidents of all time. Think about Abe Lincoln’s political journey.
A NFL team fails forward when they lose the Super Bowl but gain confidence they can win it all next year and then become the only team in NFL history to go undefeated. Have you heard of the 1972 Miami Dolphins?
A creative genius fails forward when his newspaper editor told him he, “‘lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” But then he became one of the best businessmen of all time. Do you know Walt Disney’s story?
They’re technically failing, but their failure is the stepping stone to eventual victory. No failure likely means no victory down the road.
Of course if these legends gave up then they’d go down as a loser and have to live with their regret that they didn’t fight on. They’ll have wondered “what if?” for the rest of their life, and it’s all their fault.
Plus, the pain before success is what makes it sweeter once you do win. If everything went straight from 0 to 100 in your life then nothing would taste sweet.
It’d be expected and nothing else. That’s boring. Perfect is lame.
I want struggle. I want the process. And I want to fail forward continually until I climb atop that mountain like a battle-tested warrior with scars on my face.
Too intense? You’re reading the wrong blog.
Like many things in life, failure is all about perspective.
If you become paralyzed and fearful when you fail, then you’ve empowered failure to win over your life.
But if you see failure as a wise teacher and temporary moment that you’re going to surpass, then you empower yourself to be strong and look for the opportunity in this situation.
The better response is obvious. And keeping a positive attitude during failure will completely change your professional and personal life.
You’ll have more energy, patience, and motivation to continue on compared to the fallen person who is moping around in utter defeat.
So next time failure presents itself, think, “Hey, old friend. I’ve seen you before. And I know you can’t get the best of me. I’m only going to become stronger after I overcome you.”
Then go prove it in how you bounce back from this minor defeat!
If you can look at failure with a different set of eyes than most people, you will be happier and more successful than most people. That’s a fact.
Related: Success And Failure Go Hand In Hand