Think Failure to Succeed

“Most success springs from an obstacle or failure. I became a cartoonist largely because I failed in my goal of becoming a successful executive.” Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Winston Churchill

“Notice the difference between what happens when a man says to himself, ‘I have failed three times,’ and what happens when he says, ‘I’m a failure.’ ”  Samuel I. Hayakawa

It bugs me when someone shouts “Failure is not an option!”  The icing on the buggy cake comes if their declaration is punctuated with teeth-grinding and fist-clenching.

Sure, I hear their determination and desire that they must succeed, no matter what, come hell or high-water, or no water at all, if that’s the case.  Still, it bugs me.  It seems out of touch with reality and, in my experience coaching people as they increase their level of success, not the best way to actually succeed.

Ken Peter, in his blog “Failure Is an Option,” captured my sentiments when he wrote:  Preparing for the possibility of failure isn’t a sign of weakness – it’s the sign of a professional.

Failure isn’t the opposite of success. It’s part of it. People up to ground-breaking, out-of-the-ordinary outcomes must be comfortable with failure. It could be said that they have to pursue it.

Michael Phelps’ coach tells how he would intentionally crack Phelps’s goggles so Michael would learn to swim that way if it ever happened in a race. In the 2008 Olympics, Michael’s goggles failed and filled up with water, severely impairing his vision.  He was reduced to counting strokes rather than seeing his opponents. He won gold.

Rafael Nadal’s coach made him practice with under-inflated tennis balls and poorly-strung rackets so whatever circumstances occurred in a match, Rafa would have the mindset and skill set to adjust.

The parachute designed to slow down the descent of Curiosity, the Mars rover, ripped to shreds during some of the wind tunnel trials.  The scientists didn’t know what the problem was. They did know that if the parachute didn’t work flawlessly, the entire mission would fail. Because failure was not an option, and hope was not a strategy, they conducted experiment after experiment and added more cameras to see the failure in greater detail. When it failed, they were ecstatic. The additional visual data let them see what to fix. Curiosity is on Mars today.

There are no shortages of failures in business (Facebook’s IPO, Enron, Netflix split into Qwikster), in state and federal governments, in social, religious institutions, public and private. Failure doesn’t stop progress. Stopping stops progress. Mary Pickford, actress of the silver screen, is credited with saying: “Supposing you have tried and failed again and again, you may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call “failure” is not the falling down, but the staying down.”

Here’s what you can do to deal with the possibility of failure as a business owner. Ask these questions at the launch of your project and throughout its lifecycle. These questions are helpful only when you ask them from a commitment to speak and hear the truth and not killing the messenger. Caution: If you feel yourself turning into Pollyanna or Debbie Downer, snap out of it. Neither are helpful.


  • What might not go as planned?
  • What early warning signs do we need to watch for?
  • What contingency plans can we have at the ready?

Finally, act on what you learned.  If you’re not going to act, Do Not Ask. Acting on what you learned may include adjusting timelines, redoing   budgets,  adjusting relationships so people can speak and listen to opposing points of view, identify issues sooner and have difficult conversations today, not tomorrow. Want to learn how to communicate more effectively? Take the Performance Style & Ambitions online assessment and have a 1on1 with me.

Success in business — or relationships or life – rarely comes from playing it safe. Forget the Moon…. shoot for Mars. Set unreasonable goals that freak you out a little. Failure is always an option.  Don’t fear it. Anticipate it. When it shows up, pay attention, learn from it. Be calm and carry on.

1 thought on “Think Failure to Succeed”

  1. Thanks for sharing this powerful approach to including failure in our success, Camille! Peopple sometimes think I am a very positive person, but I highly value “going to the dark side”. The power of negative thinking, applied at the right time, can help us anticipate and avoid predictable causes of failure. The key, of course, is timing. Don’t mix risk management with ideation, or you’ll kill every idea that emerges. And don’t dwell in the dark side. It rots your soul.

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