Success: The one thing nobody ever tells you about failure

by Greg Satell

Success: The one thing nobody ever tells you about failure - Innovation ExcellenceWhen J. Paul Getty was asked about his formula for success he said, “rise early, work hard, strike oil.” The quote is funny because it’s meant to be. Every story of great success involves some luck, yet few admit it as readily as Getty did and that kind of honesty is refreshing.

These days, there is no shortage of advice on how to be successful. Learning to codecreating disruption and even Montessori schools are commonly cited examples. But they are no more helpful than, “learn to do heart surgery”, “come up with a great idea and “go to Harvard.”

Yet take a deeper look at any story of great success and you will find one thing that they all have in common: overcoming failure and adversity. There is no straight shoot to the top. There will be challenges along the way and some will get the better of you.

What makes top performers different is that they take adversity and use to help them shape a better future.

The Not So Prodigal Son

Near the turn of the century, the son of a well-to-do industrialist, recently graduated from university, found himself poorly married, with a young child and unemployed.  He fell into a deep depression, became nearly suicidal and wrote to his sister in a letter:

What depresses me most is the misfortune of my poor parents who have not had a happy moment for so many years.  What further hurts me deeply is that as an adult man, I have to look on without being able to do anything.  I am nothing but a burden to my family…It would be better off if I were not alive at all.

His father would pass away a few years later.  By that time, the young Albert Einstein did find work as a lowly government clerk. Soon after, in 1905, he unleashed four papers in quick succession that would change the world.  It was an accomplishment so remarkable that it is now referred to as his miracle year.

It would still be another seven years before Einstein finally got a job as a university professor and even longer before he became the world famous icon we know today. Yet still, much of the rebellious young man remained and he retained his perspective as an outsider, which helped bring about his famous debates with Bohr that shaped physics for decades.

His early frustrations most probably also played a role in his resiliency during the backlash against him and his “Jewish physics” after the Nazis rose to power, as well as his generosity toward younger scientists and even little girls struggling with their math homework. Einstein’s ideas made him a great scientist, but his humanity made him a legend.

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From Felon to Icon

As a young man, few would have expected much out of Thomas Watson. He never graduated from college and was fired from an early job as a salesman when his entire rig, including his company’s samples, was stolen while he was getting drunk in a saloon. He then got involved with a stock fraud and opened a butcher shop that soon went under.

Things began to look up when he got a job at the National Cash Register company and managed to catch the eye of John Patterson, the company’s founder. He rose to become one of the firm’s top executives, but that too eventually went awry, when Watson was convicted for anti-competitive sales practices.

As Kevin Maney writes in his biography of Watson, “The trial and the verdict forced him to realize that there were bigger things than his job and his advancement. It also gave him something to prove—that he wasn’t a self-centered crook.” The experience would go on to shape his career as the President of IBM.

It was there that Watson became a business icon and created a unique culture. He strived to project a squeaky clean image and made customer service a top priority. Ironically, his earlier failures gave him a strong sense of optimism and resilience. Having been through the crucible, more than once, he felt strongly that any challenge could be overcome.

That optimism paid off during the Great Depression. While others pulled back, he invested during the downturn and when FDR launched the New Deal, demand for IBM’s machines soared. By the end of the war, IBM had become a major international company.

The Poor Girl from Hot Wells, Texas

In 1963, a middle aged Mary Kay Ash sat alone, depressed and jobless.  Recently widowed—her husband had suddenly collapsed and died from a heart attack—and alienated from a male dominated workplace, she would later say, “I lived across the street from a mortuary and I began to wonder if I should call them up and tell them to ‘come on over.’”

Somehow, she managed to gather her strength and launched Mary Kay Cosmetics, which is today a $4 billion enterprise.  The company became almost as much of a mission as an enterprise, providing women with inspiration and a receptive work environment.  Fortune magazine named it one of the 100 best places to work in America.

It’s hard to see how if Mary Kay came up the conventional way— a degree from a prestigious university, followed by working her way through a series of choice corporate assignments—that she would have ever had the impact she ultimately did. It was her early frustrations that led her to create a company dedicated to providing opportunities for women like herself.

Luck, Good and Bad, Never Lasts

We’re conditioned to believe that we can sail through life, collecting accomplishments and accolades as we go. The truth is that we have two options: To accept challenges which have the potential to bring us down or to live boring lives of quiet desperation, utterly devoid of distinction.

Nobody, well at least nobody with any sense, seeks to fail. Einstein looked hard for a job, but was unable to find one. It was Thomas Watson’s unfailing loyalty to his boss at NCR that got him into hot water and then fired from his lofty position. Mary Kay Ash certainly didn’t seek the sudden death of her husband.

Yet it was these disappointments that shaped their later successes. What made them different was not the fact that they failed, but how they chose to overcome it. They learned from it, dusted themselves off and got back into the fray with newfound confidence. In effect, they achieved what they did mostly because they simply refused to be beaten.

The truth is that luck—both good and bad—never lasts. The true measure of success is not accomplishments or accolades, but challenges overcome. While we celebrate the icons of science, business and government, we should not forget that they were once mere mortals too, who struggled, failed and then moved on to greater things.

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Greg Satell is a US based business consultant. You can find his blog at Digital Tonto and you can follow him on Twitter.