How to Find Success: To Succeed, You Must First Fail

Have you ever been asked in a job interview, “what is your biggest failure, and what have you learned from it?” If you haven’t, you will eventually, and you better have a good answer. 

If you’re still in your early twenties, you probably haven’t made a significant mistake yet. As you get older, however, you’ll undoubtedly make some mistakes you can discuss; but if they aren’t “good” failures that provide some learning, they won’t help you land a job. So how can you fail in a way that not only helps your career, but also provides lasting personal development? 

The sermon that our pastor gave yesterday was on the importance of failure, and he emphasized that God doesn’t care if you fail. The main point of the sermon is that of course you’re going to have failures in life, and that God doesn’t care only about your successes.  Indeed, the Bible is full of examples of people who have failed somehow only to succeed later on, and this is a key point, as a result of their initial failures.  From a completely different agnostic perspective, one of my favorite authors, and a grand figure of science fiction, Isaac Asimov, once wrote, “In a good cause, there are no failures; there are only delayed successes.”

On reflecting more about the sermon more this morning , I think the fact that the college pastor gave this sermon was particularly appropriate – he is the pastor at our church responsible for shepherding UNC-Chapel Hill college students. The students he serves probably haven’t seen a lot of failures in their lives so far, other than on an exam or a date that didn’t go well. As college professors for two decades, however, my wife Karen and I have witnessed a lot of significant failures — some of which we’ve written about and shared with our students. The leaders we’ve studied and worked with don’t shy away from failure, but rather use it as a way to grow and help others. 

Our two books profile a number of great leaders who have failed at some point in their careers, or in their leadership efforts, but who learned from those failures or mistakes. Indeed, they may not have become such incredible forces for good if they hadn’t failed at some point. Ted Castle, the President of Rhino Foods, failed to become the head hockey coach of the University of Vermont.  Customers reminded him of his failure many times when he ran the counter of his then small ice-cream shop. He became motivated to succeed in business because of his failure in his sports career. He ultimately succeeded because, as we write, he was courageous, humble, and authentic.  He courageously set out to “impact the manner in which business is done.”  He did this by creating an innovative and trustworthy business that empowered its employees, grew sustainably, and that compassionately and generously gave back to his community. He humbly recognized that he was the problem in freeing up his employees natural creativity, and he authentically drew upon his success as a hockey player and assistant coach to create a system that showed whether employees were succeeding or failing each day, and rewarded them generously for their success. Twenty years later, he’s leading a multi-million dollar company that supplies Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs, and employs over 100 people. 

In the next article in this series, I will discuss why you need to fail, how you can fail in a constructive way, and how you can maximize the benefit of failure.

Aneil Mishra and Karen Mishra are business school professors and authors of Trust is Everything (2008) and Becoming a Trustworthy Leader (2012)