Success can seem like the most important thing in a world dictated by speed, progress and gain. As a result, people fear failure. To a driven individual it is a sign that somewhere along the way, they made a grave error that kept them from reaching their goal. Those who reach for the sky often follow the models of others who are already at the top. Looking towards what they did right and how they did it may seem like a good idea – and the easiest way – to get ahead. Sometimes, this may lead to success. What worked once may work a second time. It might just as well fail spectacularly.
There is no possible way to predict the positive outcome of any personal or business venture. Failure is just one of the calculated risks we have to take. But what if our fear becomes so great that it keeps us from even trying? Studies have shown that people who are highly afraid of failing are much more likely to procrastinate. In contrast, those who showed higher levels of autonomy and vitality more readily approached a new task, no matter their fears of the future. Another interesting finding: If we feel competent to carry out a task, we do not procrastinate because we fear failure. (We may still do so for other reasons.)
Does the secret to avoiding failure lie in only doing what we do and know best? There is no right answer to this question because it is in fact the wrong question to ask. What we should ask ourselves is this: Why should we be afraid of failure? Let’s look at a worst-case scenario: You start up a new business venture, invest all your time and money. In the end, nothing seems to pay off, your business fails, which leaves you with nothing. At least on a financial and material level, that may be true and will be a hard blow. But there is one thing anyone will gain from it: A wealth of knowledge and experience. That may not seem like much in a dire situation, but if applied correctly, it will guarantee you an advantage over the competition on any future venture. You know where you went wrong, you know what not to do again. You may simply know that it is not wise for you to go on along the road you chose. Whatever it is you gain, keep it with you at all times.
Many guides today want to show us the road to success. But for any ‘How to be Rich/Successful/Best’ advice in books and on the internet, there is also someone who experienced the opposite end of success and lived to tell the tale. The Road to Success is Paved with Failure is just one example. It lists the mishaps and failures of the rich and famous and how they overcame their misfortunes. Many public figures we know today as great and successful in fact failed spectacularly at one point or other in their lives. Psychology Today put together a list of some of the most famous examples of people who learned from and triumphed despite their failures. I chose a few names off the list that might inspire you to never give up and most importantly to encourage you to try and try again.
Abraham Lincoln: While today he is remembered as one of the greatest leaders of our nation, Lincoln’s life wasn’t so easy. In his youth he went to war a captain and returned a private (if you’re not familiar with military ranks, just know that private is as low as it goes.) Lincoln didn’t stop failing there, however. He started numerous failed businesses, went bankrupt twice and was defeated in 26 campaigns he made for public office.
J. K. Rowling: Rowling may be rolling in a lot of Harry Potter dough today, but before she published the series of novels, she was nearly penniless, severely depressed, divorced, trying to raise a child on her own while attending school and writing a novel. Rowling went from depending on welfare to survive to being one of the richest women in the world in a span of only five years through her hard work and determination.
Ludwig van Beethoven: In his formative years, young Beethoven was incredibly awkward on the violin and was often so busy working on his own compositions that he neglected to practice. Despite his love of composing, his teachers felt he was hopeless at it and would never succeed with the violin or in composing. In fact, his music teacher told his parents he was too stupid to be a music composer.
Michael Jordan: Most people wouldn’t believe that a man often lauded as the best basketball player of all time was actually cut from his high school basketball team. Luckily, Jordan didn’t let this setback stop him from playing the game and he has stated, “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Stephen King: The first book by this author, the iconic thriller Carrie, received 30 rejections, finally causing King to give up and throw it in the trash. His wife fished it out and encouraged him to resubmit it, and the rest is history, with King now having hundreds of books published and the distinction of being one of the best-selling authors of all time.
Fred Astaire: In his first screen test, the testing director of MGM noted that Astaire “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Not handsome. Can dance a little.” Astaire went on to become an incredibly successful actor, singer and dancer and kept that note in his Beverly Hills home to remind him of where he came from.
Charles Darwin: Chastised by his father for being lazy and too dreamy, Darwin himself once wrote that his father and teachers considered him rather below the common standard of intellect. When Charles Darwin first presented his research on evolution, it was met with little enthusiasm. He continued to work on his theory of evolution when all of his colleagues called him a fool and what he was doing “a fool’s experiment.”
Steven Spielberg: While today Spielberg’s name is synonymous with big budget, he was rejected from the University of Southern California School of Theater, Film and Television three times. He eventually attended school at another location, only to drop out to become a director before finishing. Thirty-five years after starting his degree, Spielberg returned to school in 2002 to finally complete his work and earn his BA.
Vincent Van Gogh: During his lifetime, Van Gogh sold only one painting, and this was to a friend and only for a very small amount of money. While Van Gogh was never a success during his life, he plugged on with painting, sometimes starving to complete his over 800 known works. Today, they bring in hundreds of millions of dollars each.
Flora, Carlin (2004, October 26). Embracing the Fear of Failure. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200410/embracing-the-fear-failure
Krakovsky, Marina (2004, September 1). The Secrets of Failure. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200411/the-secrets-failure
Michalko, Michael (2011, November 22). Famous Failures. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/creative-thinkering/201111/famous-failures
Pychyl, Timothy (2009, February 13). Fear of Failure. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/dont-delay/200902/fear-failure