The Key to Sustainable Success: Turning Failure into Opportunities for Personal & Professional Growth

Posted by on Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014


“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”

— George Bernard Shaw

 Steve Jobs. Abraham Lincoln. J.K. Rowling. Oprah Winfrey. Albert Einstein.

What do all of these bright and successful minds — some of the best in our time — have in common? They were each were regarded as failures at some point in their lives.

Unfortunately, failure has been given a bad rap in our society, and unnecessarily so. Sure, it can feel scary to live passionately, embrace mistakes, and be vulnerable when we live in a culture where perfection is expected, money is equated with success, and meritocracy is often relegated to a euphemism for maintaining the status quo. However, it is possible to steer this societal fear of failure toward a far healthier direction: as leaders, we have the choice to cultivate a culture of courage. When we choose to create an environment in which people are encouraged to grow, take risks, and innovate, we all emerge victorious — regardless whether we win or lose. Because who’s keeping score when the goal is growth?

Portrait of Albert Einstein.

As a child, Albert Einstein was thought to be too mentally slow even to attend school. It was only later that he set about revolutionizing physics!
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Turn failure into success

Our perspective changes everything. If we view failure and success as different sides of the same coin, it’s easy to see that one isn’t possible without the other. More importantly, neither is better than the other — it’s all a matter of mindfulness. Accept an experience for what it is, no matter the outcome; learn from it, and move forward. Failure provides invaluable opportunities for learning and growth, both personally and professionally.

Entrepreneur Eric Ries has learned this from first-hand experience. His numerous business failures led him to create an entire movement based on failing as often as possible: The Lean Startup explains that the more we fail, the more we learn, and the more quickly we can find out what works best. Further, our job doesn’t end once we find something that qualifies as some sort of success; in fact, this is when our job really begins.

J.K. Rowling reads to children from her book at the White House.

Author J.K. Rowling created opportunities for personal growth out of challenges that certainly felt like failures at the time — she went from being poor and depressed to becoming a beloved, lucrative author.
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This is why having a compassionate attitude toward mistake-making is essential for the long-term success of any company. If we create a culture where our employees and customers have room to make mistakes, our professional relationships will be more honest and rewarding — from both sides. There is perhaps no greater gift for a leader than to be given freedom to fail, and to dare greatly. This freedom is founded in community-based qualities like empathy, compassion, and loyalty.

By re-framing failure as an opportunity for personal and professional growth, we transform it into success.

Gain confidence by taking action

One of the most important aspects of servant leadership is to take action often. Why? Because it creates confidence. Whether we fail or succeed, we can always learn from our mistakes, risks, and leaps — but we can’t learn anything if we don’t take a step forward. Entrepreneurs, managers, and CEOs frequently find themselves facing challenging situations. Remembering our underlying purpose can bring clarity — why are we doing what we’re doing in the first place?

Picture of Thomas Edison.

Thomas Edison, one of our greatest inventors, went through 9,000 failed attempts at the light bulb until he hit upon the one that worked.
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The skills that we hone when getting out from under failure are vital for confidence-building. They allow us to practice our ability to take risks (be courageous); admit mistakes (be honest with ourselves and others); learn from our experience (be innovative and creative); and move forward (be positive, purposeful, optimistic, and passionate). CEO Marc Lesser poignantly affirms the benefits of finding the joy in failure:

“When we can relax and open ourselves to the myriad small failures, it actually increases our ability to perform at higher levels, and reduces the risk of larger failures that might have important consequences. (…)

My heart, like yours, is tender. In fact, this is one of the great benefits of so-called “failures.” Failure can soften our hearts, and allow us to see and connect with the tender hearts of others.”


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2 responses to “The Key to Sustainable Success: Turning Failure into Opportunities for Personal & Professional Growth”

  1. […] This gave Brown the courage to ignore criticism from those who aren’t in the arena. While this particular talk is aimed at professional creatives, the concept applies to leaders in every industry. When we put our ideas out into the world, and lead others toward a common goal, we’re guaranteed to grapple with anxiety, fear, self-doubt, comparison, and uncertainty along the way: courageous leadership means constantly facing criticism and failure. […]

  2. […] part of being human, and isn’t always necessarily a negative thing. Making mistakes gives us the opportunity to learn and grow. There is even a famous song by The Human League with the following […]

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