I succeed because I’ve failed

A key lesson for all of us is we will fail at some point in our lives and we may fail more than once. The key to success is what do you do when you fail. I was struck by this quote from Michael Jordan’s whose basketball prowess and effort should be admired – “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots…I’ve lost almost 300 games…I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And, that is why I succeed.”

With all of his talent, Jordan worked harder than anyone to succeed. He also encouraged others to do the same, so he helped his teammates become better. People that know him say he was one of the more driven people they have ever met. Like many athletes, they are driven to avoid failure, to avoid losing. Jordan also worked at the less popular parts of the game – his defense. As my basketball coach said often, you can have an off night on offense, but you can never have an off night on defense. Defense wins games in almost any team sport.

In my senior year of high school, I was demoted from the first team to the second team. That hurt as there is pride involved with starting. So, I remembered my brother being a terrific sixth man. For those who do not follow basketball, the sixth man is usually the first person off the bench to spell the starters and gets about as much playing time as a starter. So, what did I do about it? I worked my fanny off in practice to be that one person the coach would call upon. I was a good defender, but I worked hard at being a better one covering our best big player in practice every day. I told myself I am going to prevent him from scoring in our team drills today. And, I would go do it.

Two things happened. We were better because he got better as I made him work harder for the ball. Bill Walton, one of the greatest college (and a great pro) players ever to play the game, used to say the best player he played against was his teammate, Swen Nater who made Walton better every day. Nater also became a pretty good pro player. The point to both Nater and my story is we both failed to start, but we did not let that bother us. We worked hard, got playing time and helped our teams win the best way we could. Although it is a different sport, I recall the great golfer Gary Player’s quote when answering a question about a “lucky shot.” Player said “I find the more I practice, the luckier I get.”

One of my sons did not do his best recently and he failed to achieve the success he wanted. He has since righted the ship and is doing what he is capable of doing, but when we were having a conversation about next steps, I told him a story from Coach K, the legendary Duke University coach. I shared with him when I had failed, but added this quote as it is pertinent. Early in Coach K’s tenure at Duke, their season ended with a drubbing from Virginia in the ACC tournament, something like 109-66. At the team party, a booster toasted “Here is to forgetting about this game.” Coach K quickly corrected him, “Here is to NEVER forgetting about this game.” I told my son never to forget this feeling as you need to do your best to avoid feeling this way in the future.

Failure is the best teacher. We should learn from it as it not fun. Life will knock you down, so dust yourself and get back up. But, remember why you got knocked down. The only thing you can control is you. So, make yourself better. There are two key lessons here. Winston Churchill is the greatest leader of the 20th century and the world owes him and his fellow Britains a great thank you for standing up against Hitler. His message was very clear – “Never, ever give up.” If he had, the US would be a very different place today. So, first and foremost, do not give up.

The other lesson is to learn from your mistakes. I have written a blog about my favorite business book – “Built to Last” – which looks at the common traits of highly successful companies. One of the traits is “good enough never is.” Many of these companies actually failed in their first efforts, but did not let that stop them. But, even when they had success, they never stopped improving. There is an old business change line that it is easier to change a company with a burning platform. It is harder to change one that has success. So, when you fail at something, learn from why you failed. Did you not study enough? Were you not prepared enough? But, also after you have success, do not forget to look for ways to improve. Do what it takes to not fail.

Let me close with one final piece of advice – don’t be afraid to fail. Jim Furyk, the great golfer with the unusual swing is noted to be as tough as nails as a competitor. One reason is he is not afraid to fail. He described a story as a very good basketball player on a good team. He wanted to take the last shot even when the other team knew he would. He told the coach the reason is he could handle the failure of missing better than his teammates. Jordan was like that as well.  So, don’t give up, learn from your mistakes and don’t be afraid to fail.


PS – I have added a postscript to this as I want to reference a marvelous piece written this morning by Hugh Curtler at www.hughcurtler.wordpress.com on “Contrasting Heroes.” Please read the post and the wonderful comments. I admire Jordan and Tiger Woods greatly for their athletic achievements. They are very similar in talent, temperament and work ethic. Yet, they are also similar in another way as is pointed out in Hugh’s post and comments. Both have failed to use their notoriety to speak out for those who are disenfranchised in this world. I would love for them to remedy this failure and mirror their athletic achievements.

There are three people I mention in my comments to Hugh’s post who did not shirk their responsibilities. Jim Brown, the football great, and Bill Russell, the basketball great, both spoke out against racial inequity and abetted the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. But, a real hero is Harry Belafonte, the singer/ actor who used his notoriety to make a huge difference in the US, South Africa and around the world on helping those in need. There is an excellent documentary on HBO that shares the heroic life of Belafonte.

12 thoughts on “I succeed because I’ve failed

  1. Love it, as usual…you are so right. I needed to read this this week, so thank you. I alwys like to hear about the business giants and how many other businesses they tried before they succeeded. Thanks for the important reminder. Hope you are doing great and enjoying the weekend!!

  2. I wrote a long response to Hugh today, but it applies equally well to your piece. I truly believe that you and Hugh really hit it out of the park today. This is an excellent piece about the efforts required to succeed. I am a great believer in Malcolm Gladwell and his “Outlier” premise that it takes 10,000 hours to succeed and become a top performer. I can’t argue with Jordan’s success and the work it took to get there. I totally disagree with his “I built that” attitude towards the rest of the world.

    Great post, and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Thanks Barney. I saw your response to Hugh’s as well. Gladwell got it right. I had already conceived the post leading with Jordan and almost did not write it after reading Hugh’s post, but the lesson for his athletic success still resonates. Yet, the postscript noting Hugh’s post puts it in perspective. I appreciate your comments. BTG

    • Thanks. My pleasure on the shout out. I told Barney I started not to do the post with Jordan as the lead after reading yours, but decided to go forward with the postscript. Take care, BTG

  4. how great that your post compliments hugh’s!
    you are so right, and i suspect that many people will pass this on to the younger generation.

    that concept applies to art as well, and one instructor once suggested, ‘You should frame your worst mistakes to remind yourself to never make those mistakes again.’

    thanks for a great post! i will share it with a great nephew!

  5. Sage advice. One of the greatest gifts we can give our children, or rather teach our children, is resilience. Channel our inner Winston Churchill. Sadly a lot of patents today spend their time ensuring their children never fail even if it means doing for them and so this vital skill is not learned until adulthood, if at all.

    • I agree, but I must confess, I have overindulged with my kids on occasion. My wife and I have spoken we should have let them just fail, but it is hard balance to reach. Yet, it is a necessary one as you note. Thanks for writing, BTG

  6. How are you measuring success and failure here?

    How many balls you can hit, throw through a hoop or knock in a hole? Or, is it how much money you can pile up? How big a market share you can maintain? Is that what success is? Is this the stuff that happiness is made of? It all sounds more like “playing games” to me and that may very well be our prevailing cultural party line… but, is it working?

    • Good comments. That is why I added the postscript. Yet, the lesson I was trying to convey on anything we have failed at – be it business, relationships, major community efforts – we should not give up, learn from the failure and not be scared to try. Marriage is hard work, that is why almost half of them fail. So, if you want it to work, you have to do those three things above. With that said, you are dead on accurate that we equate money or sports success with life success. Donald Trump has a lot of money, but I do not envy him and I certainly would not vote for him. After I wrote this, I was thinking I could have used Walter Payton. For all of his football success, he was such a humanitarian they named an award to give to the most community minded football player. I would call Payton a success for being more than his talent. Thanks for writing. BTG

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