Success stands on Failure

Oct 29, 2020 00:00 · 603 words · 3 minute read

Lately, I came across this blog post. It’s a nice piece about how we do (or do not) understand success. But what ultimately resonated with me, was this quote:

By not seeing failure, we misunderstand the elements of success.

In my opinion, this quote perfectly sums up everything that is going wrong when it comes to people (including me) trying to accomplish anything meaningful in their lives and hence trying to live their lives on their own terms, doing stuff that they love.

We construct our mental models, our opinions, based on what we experience. But what we experience, most of the time, ist what has been, or still is successful, be it a pop star, a bestselling author, or a fancy gadget (Survivorship Bias).

The fact, that failed attempts, bad design or wrong decisions often never make it into our line of sight, seems to be the main reason why our ideas of how success is supposed to work, are flawed.

Being surrounded only by things that turn out well, creates the impression that success is a do-or-die thing. Either it works, or it doesn’t. That the process of every great invention, the story of every successful project, that the trajectory of successful sports careers can be described by a straight line going only in one direction: up.

Thats why we quit a project, as soon as the first obstacle pops up. That’s why a business idea gets thrown into the trash can, because one investor did not want to invest in it. That’s why we even hesitate to tell our friends about a new idea. Getting rejected, even once, is not something we associate with success.

It seems to me that success is a function of what we don’t see: Failure. Not because we are not able to see failure (though we often enough just do not want to see it), but because it is hidden from us.

A successful restaurant stands against 100 failed ones. For every bestseller, there are million manuscripts that do not even make it out of the drawer. Every famous athlete was able to leave thousand of competitors behind, and with them their dreams of a sports career.

You don’t read about those failures, nor do those who failed tell their story.

Although failure is hidden from us, I think that the key to have a healthy relationship to success is to accept failure as an integral part of it.

Now, how can we accomplish that? How can we start to think differently about success? The answer to this question is a rather personal one (or, put differently: I don’t know).

For me, I would say that it consists of these parts:

  • Actively look for failed projects and the stories behind them

  • Start to talk about things you tried and went wrong

  • Start to think and speak differently about failure.

  • Accepting that the transition from failure to success is driven by consistency (which certainly exposes you to even more failures)

The last point reminds me of a paragraph in “Chop Wood, Carry Water” by Joshua Medcalf.

Akira, a master in the art of archery, reminds his pupil, John, that most people, when looking at their idols, almost always only see the polished end result of their role models. The part, that gets exposed to the spotlights and therefor miss that what they see, is just the end result, is only one single part that stands at the end of an exhaustive, work loaded process.

But “[…] you do not shine under the bright lights”, Akira says, “the bright lights only reveal your work in the dark”.

If you want to get in touch with me, send me an email

longo.tomas@googlemail.com