It's Only "Failure" If You Don't Learn From It

Let your mistakes be milestones instead of millstones.

As I travel and speak in various organizations, there seems to be nothing more unpopular than mistakes. In fact, some people are so afraid of making mistakes that they refuse to try anything new. And other people — who try some new things — simply quit if they encounter any setbacks. Discouragement brings them to a screeching halt.

It’s like the two Floridian’s who went ice fishing in Minnesota. They stopped at a bait shop, bought some bait, and told the clerk they’d also need an ice pick.

An hour later they came back to the bait shop, saying, “We’ll need three or four more ice picks.” They came back again, saying, “We’ll need all the ice picks you got.”

Of course, the clerk was curious. He asked, “By the way, how are you doing out there?” The Floridian’s replied, “Not very well at all. We haven’t even gotten the boat in the water yet.”

They had some setbacks. They experienced some failure. And so have you and I. Everybody fails at some point. It’s not a matter of “if” we fail but “when” we fail.

And one of the key differences between winners and losers is in “how” they respond to those failures. Losers use failure as a reason to quit. Winners use failures for good. As one winner so aptly said, “I’ve had a lot of success with failure.”

To be specific, if you’re going to move ahead, how you respond to the inevitable failures at work and at home will make all the difference in the world. I suggest these three responses.

=> 1. LOOK For Failures.

If you’re not stumbling a bit, if you’re not messing up a little here and there, chances are you’re not trying hard enough. You’re playing it too safe. You’re not taking enough risks, and without a bit of calculated risk taking, you won’t achieve all you can achieve.

I like the way Susan Jeffers put it in her book, “Feel The Fear — And Do It Anyway.” She said, “After serious consideration, I’ve decided that if I haven’t been making any mistakes lately — I must be doing something wrong.”

You just can’t be afraid of failure. As baseball star Babe Ruth once said, “Never let the fear of striking out keep you from taking a swing.” And hockey star Wayne Gretsky concurred. He said, “You’ll miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

So look for the failures. If you don’t see any, you’ve got a problem. And then,

=> 2. LEARN From Failure.

There’s always a lesson in your failure. If you learn your lesson, you will do better next time. In fact, most millionaires go through several financial difficulties before they make their millions. But they learn something from each of their failures that brings them closer and closer to their final goal.

If, on the other hand, you don’t study your failures, if you don’t learn from them, you’ll probably make the same mistakes over and over again. That’s why those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And that’s why you see some people marry and divorce three alcoholic spouses in a row.

As Father John Powell said, “The only real mistake is the one from where you learn nothing.” Are you studying your failures? Are you looking for the lesson? Or are you simply wallowing in the feeling of how bad it feels to fail? You’ve got to look for the learning.

It’s like the time a young and old philosopher were walking on the beach. They walked knee deep into the water, where upon the young man said he wanted to be as wise as the old philosopher.

The old man instantly pushed the young man beneath the water and held him there. When he finally went limp, the old man pulled the young man out and revived him.

Of course, the young man sputtered, “Why? Why did you do that?”

The old philosopher replied, “When you want to learn as much as you just wanted to live, then you will have the wisdom of the ages.”

You’ve got to learn from your failures. “Ya gotta wanna learn.” Finally,

=> 3. LIVE With Your “Failure.”

In other words, don’t be embarrassed by your failure. Don’t let it turn you into a “fraidy cat.” And don’t let the world label you as a “failure” just because you pursued your goal and didn’t come out on top. Live with your failure — with all the grace and dignity you can muster.

That’s what I learned from Steve Geiner. Steve set a goal for himself, to get a gold metal at the Olympics. And indeed, at age 16, he was the greatest swimmer in the world. He held the 100-meter freestyle record.

But one month before the Olympics his lung collapsed. The doctors told him he couldn’t swim in the Olympic games. For 7 years of his life, 7 hours a day, Steve had worked toward that goal, and now it had suddenly been destroyed.

Steve’s doctors, his parents all said he couldn’t swim. But Steve said he was going to be there at the Olympics, that nothing would hold him back, that there would be no excuses. His doctors and parents persisted. They told him that was silly idealism. With stitches in his side he couldn’t possibly swim.

Steve said, “You don’t understand. Almost half of my life has been dedicated to that one goal.” And so one month later, Steve was there at the starting block. The gun went off. Steve dove into the water, yelling because of the extreme pain that racked his body when it hit the water.

After the first 50 meters of the race, nothing was going to stop him. He flipped to turn at the end of the pool, but as he pushed off he ripped out every stitch. He lost a pint and a half of blood during the next 50 meters.

At the finish line, there was one finger length separating Steve Geiner and the person who got the gold medal. Who finished one finger length in front of Steve? Mark Spitz. Everyone remembers him, and he deserves his recognition, but no one remembers Steve Geiner who came in second.

Was Steve a failure? Absolutely not. He was a “winner” that day — even if the world called him a “loser.”

So don’t let the world call you a “failure.” Be a little wary of their labels. And learn to “live” with your failure, knowing you’ve done your very best — and you may do even better the next time around.

LOOK, LEARN, and LIVE. That’s the secret.

Action:  Select two of your “failures” from the last six months. Then figure out what you learned from those failures. And outline the new behaviors you are taking as a result.