When you mess up, drop the ball, screw the pooch or have an epic fail, it can feel like the world is ending and your career is kaput. First, take a deep breath and rest easy. You’re not the first person to encounter failure. In fact, some of the most successful, influential and inspiring people in the world have encountered some pretty major failure.
Taking a look at the failures and tough times of others is one of the best ways to get over your own shortcomings. It’s important to see that failure is a part of the process, and that to be successful you absolutely must learn to make it a tool as opposed to roadblock. Failure hurts, and that may never change, but it’s how you learn to get better.
You’ve probably never heard of the Traf-O-Data 8008 — a device that could take a look at traffic tapes and then process them into useful data — but it was Bill Gates’s first step into the world as an entrepreneur. Gates and his partner Paull Allen tried to sell the processing service to the local County, but their demo failed because of a teeny tiny little flaw: it didn’t work. Allen looks back at the Traf-O-Data, however, with the right mindset:
Even though Traf-O-Data wasn’t a roaring success, it was seminal in preparing us to make Microsoft’s first product a couple of years later
Now Microsoft is one of the biggest computer and software companies in the world, and Gates is one of the richest men in the entire world with a net worth of around $US81 Billion. Not everyone will have the same fortune as Gates did, but just because your first idea bombs, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try again. Take the lessons you learn from your mistakes and hold on to the parts that work. Eventually, with enough trial and error, you’re bound to have an idea that works.
She’s one of the most influential people in the world. Oprah has done it all, be it her incredibly popular television show or the overwhelming number of philanthropy projects she’s conducted. Winfrey wanted to take a crack at the movie business with an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”. It lost out during opening weekend to “Bride of Chucky”. and never came close to recovering its $US80 million budget, despite a generally positive critical reception.
This failure sent Winfrey into a depressed downward spiral. In fact, in a very candid interview with Piers Morgan, Winfrey admitted to turning to food for comfort. She eventually recognised her depression and was able to get through her troubled times, but the sting of box office failure hung around. In an interview with Al Roker on the Today Show, Winfrey explains that it was all a powerful lesson:
It taught me to do whatever you’re going to do and release all expectations for it.
In fact, she decided to get back on the horse. After a few years of voice and TV work, Winfrey got back on a major film set with 2013’s “The Butler”. Expectations, can be a hard thing to manage. When you’re doing something important, you want it to go well, but it’s not always in your control. You could give the best presentation of your life, or complete work on the most exciting project you’ve ever done, but that doesn’t mean it will go your way. Give it your all, but manage your expectations so you avoid crippling defeat.
Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor, is a sage of financial wisdom. He’s always willing to offer his advice and explain what he thinks are the right financial moves. He’s still human though. Buffett is the chairman, president and CEO of multinational conglomerate holding company Berkshire Hathaway, but Buffett considers his acquisition of the company a $US200 billion mistake. That’s a big mistake.
How could a company that does so well on a regular basis be a big mistake? Well it used to be a struggling textile mill, and when Buffet took offence to an offer from the CEO at the time, he decided to buy a controlling portion of the company just so he could fire the CEO. Buffett’s ego got the best of him. Of course, he managed to turn things around and make Berskshire incredibly profitable, but he still missed out on something: opportunity. Buffett considers the acquisition of Bershire Hathaway his biggest mistake because he feels like he wasted precious time on it, all because he couldn’t let go of his ego. He could have been focusing on something more profitable, like insurance and — by his own estimates — doubled his returns over the course of his career.
Most of you probably know Arianna Huffington as the President and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, but she’s had her share of ups and downs along the way. She was the first foreign female president of Cambridge Union debating society, published her first bestseller The Female Woman at 23, and has been a prominent figure in US politics. Whether you’re a fan of her or not, she’s a very successful person with plenty of experience with failure. Over at Success, Mary Vinnedge says Huffington will always remember two of her biggest failures:
…high on her list of failures are the 36 rejections of her second book, despite the success of her first. Then there’s her abysmal showing as an independent in California’s 2003 gubernatorial race: Although Huffington withdrew a week before the election, her name stayed on the ballot and she finished fifth with 0.55 per cent of the vote.
Huffington’s approach to her own failures is positive. She recognises the importance of failure and has her mother to thank for it:
My mother instilled in me that failure was not something to be afraid of, that it was not the opposite of success. It was a stepping stone to success. So I had no fear of failure. Perseverance is everything. I don’t give up. Everybody has failures, but successful people keep on going…
It’s not always as simple as just continuing onward, but when you keep moving forward — despite the failures and obstacles along the way — you’re already ahead of all of those people that just gave up. Sometimes, the secret really is just showing up over and over again.
King is a best-selling author and a master of horror, but at one time he was just an English teacher selling short stories on the side. Aly Weisman at Business Insider explains how one of King’s most popular books was originally a stinker:
…he accepted a $US2,500 advance for his first novel “Carrie” to Doubleday but after 30 rejections, King decided to give up on the book.
At the urging of his wife, King later resubmitted the manuscript and now, after having hundreds of books published, King is one of the best-selling authors of all time…
Now Carrie is one of King’s bestselling books and already has two film adaptations. With total sales between 300 and 350 million copies of his books, it’s no wonder Stephen King is a household name. Rejection is a part of life. It can knock you down and make you feel like you’re not good enough, especially if it’s something you created on your own. Turn it around instead and use rejection as a tool for building creative resilience. Thicken up your rejection shield and keep plugging away at your idea. Maybe your idea will finally be seen for its greatness the same way King’s “Carrie” was.
Tina Fey has made her mark as one of the best known comedienne’s this day and age. She started doing improv comedy with Second City in Chicago, and that eventually led to her getting hired on at Saturday Night Live — as a writer. Fey actually wanted to perform, and she soon got a chance to play a featured extra on the show. Still, Fey refused to give in, and when she was given a spot on SNL’s Weekend Update sketch, she won the world over.
After climbing to the top with SNL, Fey worked on several films of her own and created and starred in the Emmy-winning show “30 Rock”. So how did she get there? Her failure wasn’t something she did or messed up on, but mentally, Fey was convinced that she didn’t look good enough. So she did whatever she could to get to a place where she could show them, but in her book Bossypants, Fey shares some different advice for women in the workplace:
So, my unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism, or ageism, or lookism, or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: ‘Is this person in between me and what I want to do?’ If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way.
There’s no point in you wasting your energy on trying to change opinions that don’t matter. Do your work well, and if you do need to change someone’s opinion to keep going, focus your energy there.
Everyone knows Steve Jobs as Apple’s former head honcho. There was a time, however, that Jobs was booted from the very company he helped found. Not every Apple product has launched with the excitement of a thousand overcrowded lines. The Lisa computer sold poorly and in 1985 Jobs was removed from the Macintosh division. The move came from the board of directors and then CEO John Scully; someone Jobs had chosen for the position a few years earlier.
Soon after, Jobs left Apple to found a new company called NeXT. That company didn’t manage to have the access Jobs was hoping for well, but Apple purchased the software division in 1997 and Jobs was back at Apple, becoming CEO in 2000. Setback after setback, Jobs was determined. Jobs wanted Apple to be something special:
“…a company that will still stand for something a generation or two from now That’s what Walt Disney did, and Hewlett and Packard, and the people who built Intel. They created a company to last, not just to make money. That’s what I want Apple to be.”
With the successes of the Macbook, iPod, the iPhone and iPad, and a little animation company called Pixar, Jobs turned a mountain of failures into the ultimate success story. After leaving a company he helped found, Jobs refused to give up on creating products with value. NeXT was a pivotal stepping stone for Jobs, and it allowed him to keep moving forward. The company wasn’t a roaring success, but Jobs brought a lot of the technology and innovation from NeXT back to Apple later on. Just because you encounter a setback — or end up on another path — it doesn’t mean you’re stuck. Keep innovating, implementing and believing in what you do. You’ll get back on track eventually, and it’s possible you’ll be even better off than before.
Conan O’Brien spent years pursuing his dream of hosting The Tonight Show. That dream came true, but only for a short time. NBC gave the show back to Jay Leno, essentially leaving O’Brien out in the cold. In Conan’s case, failure was something that was out of his hands, but it can still be taken as a lesson. Not all failures are caused by you. When it is something you’ve done, take responsibility and move forward, but when something comes along that you can’t control, don’t let it affect you negatively. O’Brien says:
Don’t be afraid to fail. Whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that with true disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.
O’Brien didn’t let the actions of NBC affect his perspective and work ethic. At the end of his run with NBC, in his last episode of The Tonight Show, he said:
Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.
When the whole fiasco was all said and done he exclaimed — in the Dartmouth commencement address in the video above — that he has never believed that more. Whether it’s your doing or not, failure is not a state of mind.
Seeing others trip up is like medicine, soothing the soul and reminding you that we’re all just human. Just take a look at these people. If there is one thing they could all agree on, it would be that failure is required for success, and the persistence to keep going after failure is what separates the successful from the mediocre.