I have a saying, “Hank Aaron didn’t hit a home run every time.” It’s my way of reminding myself that for every success, there are a thousand less than perfect outcomes. In fact, failure is much more common than success. The term “trial and error” best sums up the practice of implementing a strategy, observing the positive and negative effects, and modifying procedures until the desired results are achieved. The founders of the United States didn’t get things right the first time with the Articles of Confederation, and it took a Civil War to work out issues left over from ratifying the Constitution.
The old saying goes that one learns more from failure than success, but this is mainly because one learns from failure, versus getting something right the first time. Failure causes one to evaluate what went wrong, to examine the process and make improvements, and to “try harder” on the next attempt. In the process the brain gets rewired, and changes in attitude and behavior happen that can’t be reversed. One who succeeds without much effort or “coasts” on talent alone is no better or worse for the experience, whereas the person who fails a time or two (or more) and works on improving himself or herself changes with each attempt, becoming more knowledgeable and better skilled as he or she masters the endeavor. Orson Welles, in his Hollywood debut, produced what has been heralded as the greatest movie ever filmed, and never fully lived up to his potential again, ending his career shilling wine on television. Lasting success often comes to those not immediately appreciated for their talents.
George Washington wasn’t highly regarded by his superiors as a young officer in the Colonial militia, and as a general, his favorite tactic was strategic retreat. Van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime, but, fortunately, didn’t let that stifle his creativity. Penicillin came about because Alexander Fleming used a petri dish contaminated with mold spores. Joanne Rowling was a recently divorced single mother with serious financial problems, who spent her free time in a coffee shop working on the draft of what would become the first Harry Potter novel. Failure and the disappointment that comes with it often makes eventual success all the more rewarding.
The book Rejection by John White chronicles numerous instances where authors, filmmakers, and other public figures have endured times when their work was not recognized by critics, publishers, or the public at large. In one instance, a poet, Lee Pennington, submitted a work to a magazine and received the response, “This is the worst poem in the English language. You are the worst poet in the English language.” Undaunted, he submitted it to another magazine, which published it and named it best poem of the year. Learning to deal with disappointment is the most important lesson one can learn, because we’re more likely to be disappointed than satisfied. Accepting that failure is not the end of the world is often the first step in becoming a success.
That being said, it is, by no means easy to deal with failure, and the grander the scale, the more difficult it becomes to overcome the feelings that go with it. There is a tendency among people to personalize every interaction. Often times, when something negative happens to someone, the first instinct is for the person to wonder what he or she did to cause it. Usually, such feelings have little basis in reality. I was once run off the road by another driver who pulled out in front of me unexpectedly. In the immediate aftermath, I questioned why I had been in the lane I’d been in. After a moment, though, I realized I hadn’t done anything wrong. Still, my first instinct had been to blame myself for what had happened. When we fail, it’s always a challenge to keep believing we’re capable of accomplishing the task at hand, but those who best overcome failure are those best positioned to succeed.
Sometimes, failure does result from individual limitations. A person with no athletic ability is not very likely to become a world-class tennis or soccer star, regardless of how much effort goes into the pursuit. Everyone has talent in some form or another, however, and sometimes it’s just a matter of recognizing and nurturing that talent. James Boswell, biographer of Dr. Samuel Johnson, had a talent for bringing interesting people together and chronicling what happened afterward. Learning to be resourceful in the face of defeat gives one the potential to eventually succeed. We’re always going to have difficulties. It’s how we face them that makes all the difference.