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Enough with the clichés about failure leading to greatness

Tech blogs and Twitter users alike love to write about how the only way to succeed is to fail first. Fail over and over again. Fail colossally. Fail famously in front of everyone, rinse and repeat. I disagree.

Tech blogs and Twitter users alike love to write about how the only way to succeed is to fail first. Fail over and over again. Fail colossally. Fail famously in front of everyone, rinse and repeat. I disagree.

If you’ve been reading blogs or spent time on Twitter and/or Facebook for more than five minutes, you’re probably tired of the cliché inspirational quotes about failure. You know that Henry Ford said that “failure is only the opportunity to begin again, only this time more wisely” and Benjamin Disraeli said “all my successes have been built on my failures.”

Okay, so “failure” is no longer a curse word. Yawn. Tech blogs and Twitter users alike love to write about how the only way to succeed is to fail first. Fail over and over again. Fail colossally. Fail famously in front of everyone, rinse and repeat.

I suppose there is a lesson in perseverance, dedication and picking yourself up by the boots in the quotes recycled around the net, but the clichés are missing the element of learning from said failures, they are missing the element of converting failure into success.

“Failure doesn’t mean you are a failure…it just means you haven’t succeeded yet,” said Robert Schuller. Aww, how sweet. But yeah, this skips about a trillion steps.

A more reasonable quote about failure is “if you’re not failing, you’re not trying. You learn how the world works when you fail.” (Dan Shipper). Shipper tells his readers to get a bag of M&Ms and start tossing them in the air, trying to catch them in your mouth in front of people. There is anticipation of failure and the fear of risking in front of others, but the end goal is usually a mastery of M&M catching. You learn how the process works by trying which is where I believe the inspirational quotes should focus- the trying, not the failing.

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In additional to the focus shifting away from failing and toward trying, we should focus on the reward of risk. British research analyst and “workplace psychology wonk,” Michael Schwalbe points to the 40-30-30 rule.

Schwalbe wrote, “One lesson I learned from alpine ski racing was the “40-30-30 Rule.” During training, early on, I tried to go fast, and I also focused on not falling. On a ride up the ski lift, my coach told me I was missing the point. He explained that success in ski racing, or most sports for that matter, was only 40% physical training. The other 60% was mental. And of that, the first 30% was technical skill and experience. The second 30% was the willingness to take risks.”

Schwalbe’s coach reminded him that if he didn’t fall at least once per practice, he wasn’t pushing himself hard enough, he wasn’t trying hard enough. Note that his coach didn’t tell him, “son, good job on failing repeatedly, you’ll be a gold medalist in no time,” rather he pointed to his efforts and how hard he pushed himself.

Those who succeed in life and in business are the ones who push through the discomfort of falling on the slopes, of dropping the M&Ms and looking foolish, but they are not successful simply because they failed, but because they mastered the last 30% of taking risk, of trying, of converting failure into success.

So, let all of the Twitter experts (who last year were Realtors and the year before were phone sales people and the year before marketing consultants) share cheesy quotes about failure and continue to fail while you focus on the task of mastering the 30% and focus on the business of trying not to fail.

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Lani is the COO and News Director at The American Genius, has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH, Austin Digital Jobs, Remote Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.



  1. Bill Lublin

    March 7, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    You know you’ve always been my favorite writer here 🙂

  2. Chris Johnson

    March 7, 2011 at 12:47 pm


    Classic lani.

    The deal is that people are fearful. People don’t really want to take risks, and more to the point, they don’t want to risk getting disapproved of or anything like it. They want to play it safe, collect six figures and do it again.

    The same people that preach this shit are the same people that don’t want to rock the boat, value the approbation of mediocrities more than anything valuable.

    I’ve dealt with people that want me to like them so badly it hurts. Me. There’s nothing worse than someone that needs your approval, and there’s nobody more easily controlled.


    • Lani Rosales

      March 8, 2011 at 9:40 am

      Chris, I agree that typically those who espouse the “failure=success” model are the play it safe types and it FEELS good to say, or are the type without real world business experience and don’t know that the inspirational figures quoted didn’t succeed OR fail overnight.

      You’re also right about people desiring to be liked, but it’s such a Southern thing that I think many mistake seeking approval for achieving success. Being liked doesn’t necessarily pay the mortgage.

  3. Daniel Bates

    March 7, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    I thought I had failed once, but I was mistaken.

  4. Teresa Boardman

    March 7, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    failure has never been an option for me . . Yet I have failed and it has lead to failure.

  5. BawldGuy

    March 7, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    Not sure whether this is different, or merely saying the same thing differently. Playing the game, whatever it is, not to lose, isn’t geared to succeeding. We play to win. A hitter swings to hit the ball, not to avoid missing it. Frankly, I’ve never understood the logic behind anything other than trying to hit the bullseye. Imagine this commentary at the next Gold Medal Round for archery, at the 2012 Olympics.

    “He’s pulling back the bowstring, and is carefully trying not to miss. He’s an inspirational lesson in courage!”

    • Lani Rosales

      March 8, 2011 at 9:51 am

      Yep, on the same page. I like the archery analogy!


    March 8, 2011 at 9:23 am

    I think part of the problem is that nuance is next to impossible in 140 characters. Sound bites dominate over guidance as to analysis of results and how learning how to do better. Learning demands stretching and taking risks- Vygotsky talks about the “Zone of Proximal Development” where you constantly push a student beyond where they are, by “scaffolding” skills and asking them to do a little bit more each time. (This is also why video games hijack the brain so well- the next level is always just a l*little* bit harder than the last, encouraging us to try and give it another go until we reach mastery)
    Learning is about taking those small, educated risks for the payout they deliver- and if we get too risk adverse, we lose that payoff.

    I agree with your examples- it’s about integrating what you know and pushing yourself further, otherwise, the comfort zone leads to stagnation, but I don’t think anyone really means “jump out of an airplane with out a parachute”- but if they do, they are plain crazy.

    • Lani Rosales

      March 8, 2011 at 9:55 am

      Whitney, I completely agree with everything you say… until the last line that you don’t think anyone really means “jump out of an airplane with out a parachute…”

      See, I think that’s the problem. You and Vygotsky are right on and I *really* love how you summarize the problem, but I personally know people who because of getting all pumped up on Twitter and the like, they go from 0 to 60 and “launch” a business overnight (typically they’ve become Twitter experts since they signed up for Twitter and it didn’t crash their computer). There is a culture being promoted of making the jump without a parachute and then “learning” from your failure… umm, pancakes on the ground can’t learn.

      GREAT points, Whitney!!

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