Is There a Relationship Between Early Failure and Future Success?

The other day when I was eating lunch alone I thought of these questions:

  • Is failure a prerequisite to success?
  • I mean do you have to fail first to succeed later?
  • And if you do have to fail, how bad does the failure have to be?
  • If you succeed the first time, have you learned anything?
  • Is the term failure subjective?

So that got me asking more questions –

  • Did Tiger Woods ever fail at golf?
  • Did Wayne Gretzky ever fail at hockey?
  • Did Bill Gates ever fail at business?

I had a friend in High School who was a 4.0 straight-A student. She was what some experts call – profoundly gifted. She said she never studied once in her life and that pulling a 4.0 was as easy and natural as breathing. She went to Boston College on a full ride and I haven’t heard from her since, and I don’t know what happened after that, but I bet she aced that place too.

I can’t help but wonder what it would feel like to be so good at something that it wasn’t challenging. So good the only way to challenge yourself is to set the bar of achievement in uncharted territory.

So when Sochiro Honda said that success is 99% failure, was he talking about these people? Or are they the exception to the rule?

Some experts say that you need to learn some lessons the hard way. But which ones?

I’m sure you’ve all heard the Lottery Winner/Rock Star horror stories, where quick financial success leads to ruin. You never hear these stories about people that worked long and hard for their success.

I had another friend whose brother was profoundly gifted and he became an unemployed alcoholic. When I asked her what she thought went wrong, she said, “Everything was too easy for him. He never had to study. He never had to work at anything so he didn’t work at anything. His gift made him lazy and arrogant.” What was the difference between him and my other gifted friend? Was it humility?

I’ve also read about entrepreneurs who succeed on their first try, think they have the Midas touch, and lose everything on their next venture because they didn’t learn to respect the difficulty of starting a business.

Reasonable people have said that George W. Bush makes poor decisions because he never had to learn anything the hard way – his family cushioned every fall. Since Clinton and Reagan didn’t have the luxury of inter-generational wealth, they didn’t make as many glaring errors because circumstances forced them to learn from their mistakes early on.

I’m sure you’ve heard stories about trust fund babies that wind up a mess. The movie Arthur comes to mind.

It seems failure is an antidote to one of the largest obstacles to achieving greatness – hubris.

Writing this post leaves me with more questions:

  • Do the folks that seem to succeed without a major failure, succeed because they are already humble, so failure wasn’t necessary?
  • Today, is it okay to have as many high profile failures as Abe Lincoln? Or has our culture changed so much that society would brand you a failure?
  • Can a person learn without experiencing failure? Is such a thing even possible?
  • What failures did Tiger Woods and Bill Gates learn from? Was it a few little things, like a bad shot or a bad decision here and there that never added up to anything major?
  • Is it possible to succeed, never actually failing, but only learning from other people’s failures?

I possess only one piece of wisdom about this subject…

After I passed the examination for my pilot license, the examiner said:

Kid, you’re going to make mistakes. Just don’t make the one that kills you. – Anders Christensen

18 thoughts on “Is There a Relationship Between Early Failure and Future Success?”

  1. You can’t know “good” until you know what “bad” is. You can’t know “right” until you know what “wrong” is. Someone who has only experienced success in their life can’t truly appreciate their fortunate circumstances until they’ve also experienced failure. They may recognize that they’ve been blessed, but deep down they can’t understand exactly how privileged they are.

    God bless those people who’ve had only positive experiences in life – But until they know the other half of life’s game, they won’t truly appreciate the great gifts that they have.

  2. I was once asked if entrepreneurship could be learned. Yes. And the best lesson is failure.

    While we can always learn from watching others, we really don’t know how to ride a bike until we got on one…and fall…and maybe again.

    Brad makes great points on really knowing good/bad, right/wrong. Thought provoking post, thanks:-)

  3. Thought provoking indeed Steve (and great quote too!).

    Speaking from personal experience, not knowing how to actually deal with failure was a far worse experience than the failure itself. I think that there are individuals that may indeed be able to succeed all their life and not fail and still be able to truly appreciate what they’ve been given. A person doesn’t necessarily have to break their legs to appreciate what their legs have enabled them to accomplish in sports or life in general (I know, bad analogy).

    Yet I think it comes down to the person and how they choose to learn and deal with the world around them. Some people will never cheat on their spouses after seeing what their parents went through (if their parents were unfaithful to each other), yet some people choose to do it anyway only to suffer the same consequences that their parents did. I think it really has to do with the person and their values and life philosophy.

    Anyway, just my 2 cents.

  4. I tend to want to baby and shelter my kids so they don’t get hurt. This post just gave me food for thought to rethink my ways. I’m also well aware of how wealth seems very difficult to sustain across generations, and a lot of it is due to the “easy life” of the young. As a parent, it’s sometimes hard to “let go” and have your kids make mistakes so they become better people. I look to this post to give me the courage to know how to “let go” when I need to.

  5. I really thought about your questions. I believe that really successful people do fail a lot, however failure is very subjective, and their failure is different from what we would class as failure. I could imagine Warren Buffett saying ‘I only made $100 million this year it’s been a bad year’.

    So, failure for very successful people would still be a motivator for them and you’re right, I think the bar would be raised into unknown territory.

    Brad and Mike make valid points about success being a learned skill.

    I enjoyed your post Steve, it got me thinking about the definition of success and failure.

  6. Great post Steve! One of the things I’m passionate about with my clients is helping them understand how important it is to set boundaries on their children, so the kids can learn to cope with disappointment and not always getting what they want. This is a crucial skill that many children who are super sheltered aren’t learning.

    Along with this, it’s also important to let kids fail in ways that are safe, so they learn to cope with failure and are able to have the proper attitude toward it. This way, they’ll be equipped to handle it when it inevitably happens, and they’ll develop a resiliency which will keep them trying again and again without being too discouraged.

  7. LOL i misunderstood the title before, I thought it’s all about people can tell somebody will success or not when he is still doing something and not yet have the final result.

    Anyway, I don’t think people must experience failure before their success. People can learn from others (that’s why we studied History in our school lifes, (which I hate the most!)), or they have enough knownledge or other experience to help them succeed without failing, or they planned so well, or some other people assisted them, or they simply got enough luck that can all bring successes to people without letting them to fail. But one thing is for sure, both successes and failures can bring their particular experiences to somebody, and having the failing experience sure can help one to success easier in their future. So failure, at certain extents, is not failure, at least that is what I think, and of course that failure is not a big one, just as your last quote in your article.

  8. You makes some excellent points. I don’t think failure is a requirement but it sure can help. Your analogies about Bush and the very gifted people are so true, if things are too easy they become boring.

    Failure can be painful and it has to be trained. One of the signs of a great person, at least to me, is someone who can accept responsibility for his/her actions and admit they are wrong. Most people simply can’t do it and instead blames others. Doesn’t matter if it’s a small or large failure. It can be who left the sock drawer open or hwy the whole pension plan was invested in Enron stock.

    I work in a fast moving part of the financial markets. I’m wrong many times during a day, I have to tell myself to get out and start again in a few minutes. It has trained me to be accountable and I have no problem taking a loss, blame myself, learn something, and move on. This training has taught me to do the same with life.

    Failure is important, but try to avoid life threatening or disastrous mistakes. Easy to say…. 🙂


  9. I was one of the straight A students all the way through college. I’ve never really “failed” miserably at anything in my life and I am deathly afraid to do so.

    This is good and bad. I tend not to try things unless I have a perceived 90% chance of success. I use the word perceive because you can truly never know. On the other hand, I never expect to fail, so I feel like I always succeed. I also pull out of things before they become catastrophic.

    For example, my husband and I ran an online business for 2 years together (he did it for 3 alone before me). It’s ended and there’s about $30K in debt. I would say that was a failure, but recoverable. I’ll be recovering from it for years to come. Some people may view it as catastrophic. I think of the lessons learned compared to the price paid. Failing at that business makes my chances of success in larger endeavors greater.

    That failure brought to light a lot of my weaknesses. Some I am willing and able to work on, and some that I’m willing to accept. Now that I know about them, I can surround myself with people who have those strengths.

    I guess what I’m saying is that you’re going to fail in life, but every experience has in it the kernel of success. I think everyone, even straight A students fail. Some people fail smaller and faster than others.

    Hope that makes sense.

    In Spirit,

  10. Failure to me is like the golden egg that hatches success, taking analysis from the new born baby, before a child can sit properly and on its own, despite the many cushioned supports from parents and older sibblings, cousins etc. There are occassional falls, and these goes on from stage to stage and any attempt to complete avoid this may lead to retardedness in bodily developement which will likely to walking and crawling late.

    A closer look at the real success in life like, the Gates, The lincolns, The Fords, The Napoleon Hills,

  11. I worked hard and long, yet I failed. It seemed no matter how hard I try I still fail. And to make it worst, no one support anything I do. Not my friends or family. What I am trying to say is that sometimes it is not about learning any lessons. You just fail and that is it.

  12. i was a brilliant student at school, always in top ranks without any bit of studying, easily got into med school with scholarship……but now life’s changed. people who work hard are doing well but working hard is not my piece of cake, my results are poor but still average. so if i’d been a bit hard working from early on it would have been better…….

  13. Hi to all on here.
    Having just read the article about failure leading to success I would say that in sports especially and Im thinking Michael Jordan in basketball, early failure is the character building for future success. I read Ed Smith’s book “what sport tells us about life” which has a chapter on natural talent vs acquired greatness and he says that most sportsmen who acheive the top level had to fight for their place at the top. Jordan had an older brother who always beat him at basketball and when he finally overtook him it was as though the rest of the world was brought within reach. Its a case of the hare and tortoise.

    …how can I be sucessful at aiming better grades??

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