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How Failure Can Lead to Success

“There is no secret to success.”

You’ve heard those words from someone, somewhere, at some point in your life – they were spoken by a teacher, a parent, a colleague or maybe a friend.

But whoever it was, they were wrong – the secret to success, ironically, is failure.

Just ask J.K. Rowling, author of the wildly successful Harry Potter novels that have spanned a media franchise across film, theatre and video games. Her Harvard 2008 commencement speech, as transcribed here in the Harvard Gazette, was largely about the benefits of failure, and how suffering allowed her to pursue her dream and hitting rock bottom provided her the determination to succeed.

“Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.”

Failure is Commonplace

J.K Rowling’s speech is just one example of an icon suffering from failure and becoming greater because of it. Extraordinary leaders and innovator have been crediting failure as their greatest teacher for centuries. In his 2005 Stanford commencement speech, Steve Jobs said that “getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened” to him.

Failure is something everyone experiences. But why do many people fear failure so much, when figures like Rowling and Jobs embraced it?

Simple. They saw failure differently than everyone else.

Failure is Not the End of an Objective; It’s a Chance to Grow

In an Entrepreneur article, CEO Donald Thompson outlined how he realized, early in his tenure as chief executive, that failure alone wasn’t enough to grow. He needed to learn from the failure – and this perspective almost immediately transformed his business.

When he would hire an employee to work in his company, they’d turn out one of three ways: great, good or bad. If an employee was bad, Thompson would blame his own poor hiring skills, and he’d solve the problem by firing the individual.

It was his failure as a hiring manager. But he wasn’t learning anything from it and he wasn’t using that failure to become a better leader.

So he started asking, “Why?”

If a hire went bad, Thompson worked to uncover why things weren’t working out. He realized something amazing: he wasn’t failing at hiring good people, he was failing at putting them into positions to succeed.

For example, Thompson had hired a consultant to work with customers, but the consultant was floundering in the role. Customers didn’t like him. Instead of firing the consultant, Thompson spent time with the man and realized (much to his surprise) the consultant was an introvert. He’d been placed into the customer-facing role temporarily, until they could find a better fit, but the company never relocated him.

Thompson immediately moved the individual to a role more suited to his personalities, and the man grew into a top performer.

Make the Most of Your Failures

Failures are puzzles that need to be solved. They’re a chance to grow and evolve. But falling short of goals isn’t easy to cope with, so here are a few tips, adapted from Harvard Business Review, to use in times of failure:

1. When you fail, don’t blame anyone or anything. Don’t ask, “Who did it?” Instead, ask, “What happened?”

2. Remind yourself: Fast failure is the quickest route to success. For centuries, innovators have been using this strategy to change the world.

3. Be upfront and honest about your failures. Staying silent, especially in a collaborative environment, often leads to more frequent (and more catastrophic) failures.

Failures are inevitable. Don’t try to avoid them. Instead, embrace them and use them as tools to strengthen yourself and the people around you.

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