Embracing Failure


 On appearances, you could say that I would be the worst authority on the subject of failure.  I was voted Most Likely to Succeed at Ipswich High School and by most external indications I have.  We’re financially stable.  Have a healthy and happy family.  In fact, some friends once called Lori and I the ‘gag’ couple in that you want to gag when you see us because we are always so upbeat and seem to have everything going our way.  But if you were to ask me ‘what is the secret of my success’, I would respond ‘my embrace of failure’.

 Furthermore, I’ve spent the last 11 years of my life working for what is characterised by many as the most successful company in the world – Microsoft.  Its leader Bill Gates has become the very epitome of business success.  And, in many respects, it is my experience there that has contributed greatly my interest in examining failure.  Contrary to external perspectives, Microsoft could be seen less as succeeding well, but more as ‘failing’ exceptionally well.  One analyst comments that “Bill [Gates] understands that you have to try everything, because the real secret to innovation is failing fast.”  Microsoft is actually preoccupied with failure.  It’s the sort of place that if a project scores 9 out of 10, the follow up review meeting will not be celebrating the 9, but dissecting why we didn’t get the 10th.   Failure and how we cope with it is one of life’s fundamental challenges.  When Bill set up Microsoft Research at Cambridge University he told Computer Science legend and its first director that he wanted at least 50% of the projects in the facility to fail because otherwise he would feel that they we not pushing the leading edge hard enough.

 To start with, I should to clarify a few things about what I want to want to talk about today.  First, I am not talking about ‘tragedies.’ I confess that I have had considerable fortune to have largely escaped some of the major failings in life to date.  Failing health.  Failed marriage.  Job failure.  However, I really want to distinguish those as a completely separate type of ‘failure’ and not really what I want to talk about today.  I would categorise that scale of failures as ‘tragedies’.  There is falling in a race and getting up and there is falling in a race and getting quadriplegia as Christopher Reeve did.  That is a whole different scale of failure requiring a whole different perspective and coping.  I think at the tragedy scale, the dynamics, response, lessons, guidance is very different.  My messages of today are best applied to the smaller failures of life.  It is actually the smaller failings that make up the lions share of our daily struggles.                    

Secondly, I do not want to talk about coping with, managing or otherwise accepting failure.  I want to talk about embracing it.  To view ‘failure’ not as a negative force, but as a positive one.  Tom Robbins writes in his book ‘Even Cowgirls get the Blues’,

 “Go ahead and fail.  Embrace failure!  Seek it out!  Learn to love it.”

 But perhaps the best articulation for me comes from closer to my own experience in an account of working at Microsoft written by Julie Bick in her book “All I Really Need to Know in Business I Learned at Microsoft”.  In that work, she looked at principles that she had observed at Microsoft that made it so successful and which in turn helped her when she went onto other positions outside the company.  Julie’s final lesson in the book is called “Keep it in Perspective” on which she notes the following:  A mistake is not the kiss of death.  If you keep it in perspective, you’ll be able to recover quickly, learn from the mistake and move on.”  I feel that in this succinct comment, Bick captures the essence of embracing failure. 

“He quickly rose, no damage done

          Behind a bit that’s all –“

Keep it in perspective


The first step I have found in successfully embracing failure is to acknowledge it, recognise it and face the inevitable frustrations that accompany it.  Only when the internal impacts are properly soothed can one really begin to turn the adversity to advantage.

 Back at Microsoft and Bick’s final lesson on ‘keeping things in perspective’, she highlights the story of a Macintosh Word product manager Leslie Koch.  Leslie’s routine comment that she would make when someone had sent out incorrect information to the sales force or gave bad quote to the press or missed a deadline was:  “Don’t worry, no small children will die”.  Now Koch got this perspective because prior to Microsoft she had worked at New York City’s Child Welfare Agency where indeed people worked jobs that if they screwed up a child might die.  But, most of us are not in such life and death situations and thus have the privilege to approach our lives and our failings with greater perspective and detachment.  In Bick’s chapter “Getting through the Rough Spots”, her “Lesson #1” is “It’s almost never as bad as you think it is”.  Bick recommends:

“No matter what your team, partner or agency has done, losing your temper almost never helps the situation.  Letting people calmly own up to and fix mistakes repairs the damage efficiently with the fewest ulcers and helps you plan for the next time”

Bick also speaks from the perspective of a boss dealing with someone else’s failure and describes:

 “When Ron Souza worked in the Consumer Division, he always remained calm.  Once a direct-mail piece went to 200,000 customers with the phone number of a local Seattle pet shop on it instead of our customer service line…He just asked 3 magic questions:

·         How did this happen?

·         What can we do to fix it?

·         What can we do so it doesn’t happen again?

“We all remained calm because he remained calm and went about fixing the problem.  We weren’t afraid to admit our mistakes because Ron always remained unruffled.”

The benefits of a climate of acceptance has been explored by Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School.  She examined how mistakes were made in delivering medical care noting that usually they were not isolated failures, but rather the result of a string of breakdowns.  She describes:

Lots of mistakes are made in hospitals, in part due to the number of transactions and the complexity of the tasks.  But there are built-in checks.  For example, suppose a doctor prescribes quadruple the correct dosage of a drug.  That’s a mistake, but it doesn’t kill the patient.  It is a fatal error only if the patient actually receives that dosage – or perhaps receives it for several days running.  Before that happens, the pharmacist could inquire about the order, the nurse in charge could question it, another nurse might ask a colleague if it seems right.  There is a sequence before the mistake harmed the patient, where the entire working group would have to participate by not intercepting the original error.  And when you study different work groups, you find that there are significant differences in the interception rates.  In some groups, people are willing to say, ‘Hey, that doesn’t look right,’ while in others they are not."

Edmondson sought to identify what factors drove the “error interception rate”.  She analysed “detected error rates” in eight hospitals whose management style varied widely from authoritarian and punitive to open and supportive.  In the former, nurse managers tended to dress in business suits and regard failures critically.  As one nurse commented, “I was made to feel like a two-year old who had been bad”.  In more open units, nurse managers often wore scrubs, disclosed their own mistakes with staff and fostered an atmosphere that Edmondson describes as one of ‘psychological safety’.  Staff in such units said things like, “When I screw up, I trust the people here not to make me feel worse than I do already” or “It is easy to take a risk in this group”.  The study showed a direct tie between openness and error prevention rates.

An even more extreme illustration of matters requiring that much more courage to own up to is the famous story of when Richard Nixon visited Russia to meet with Leonid Brezhnev.  After the initial meeting he had to fly to Kiev and being an internal flight, diplomatic protocol specified that he couldn’t take Air Force One, but that he had to use a host country transport, ie. an Aeroflot plane.  I don’t know if you are aware, but especially at that time Aeroflot had the worst safety record on the planet and the US officials were quite anxious about the whole endeavour.  To raise the drama, once they boarded the plane it rested on the tarmac for sometime without anything happening until a very embarrassed military officer and visibly shaken Soviet Air Force colonel approached Nixon.  The officer said, “Mr President, this is the colonel in charge of this flight.  We have discovered this plane has broken and cannot fly.  What would you want us to do with him?”  Nixon looked up and without hesitation said, “Promote him.”  The officer was incredulous having anticipated all sorts of repercussions punishment and asked “Mr. President, why would we want to promote him if the plane doesn’t work?”  “Because,” Nixon answered, “the colonel discovered that the plane was broken on the ground.

The first step to embracing failure is to have the courage and support to soothe the emotions and forgive oneself.

“And hope refills my weakened will

As I recall that scene:

For just the memory of that short race

Rejuvenates my being”


Learn from the Mistake


Murphy’s law itself dictates that failure is inevitable.  If it can go wrong, it will go wrong.  Optimism is not in denying this admittedly wry postulate that things will ‘go wrong’; optimism is in finding the upside in the ‘going wrong’.  Or as Jack Zoerheide says, “Failures are life’s laboratories which prove out the measure of one’s idealism.”

Despite its obvious connotations, failure is not the purely negative force that it implies.  The most obvious and typical upside to failure is improvement.  As Nietzsche famously said, ‘What does not destroy me, makes me strong.’  Or as Harvard President Lawrence Sumner describes even more succinctly – “ Mistakes tutor genius”.  

In our own bodies, failure is a key requirement to keeping our health strong.  Contracting an illness is critical to the body’s immune system building up an immunity to it and our entire system of immunizations is built on this principle of injecting ‘small sicknesses’ into us.  Muscle failure is key to sport training as muscles are designed to heal itself stronger after it has been broken down by exertion.  And, failure is fundamental to that life process which drives the diversity of our world and growth of all species – evolution.  And in that context, the human being is almost predestined to physical failure.  The human body is not well adapted to most environments.  We are weak, slow and exposed.  But it is this fragility which drives intellectual and social creativity on which we survive and thrive as a species.

But on a personal level, most often the silver lining to failure is a powerful, lifelong lesson . 

As William Gladstone once said, “No man ever became great or good except through failure”.  Jack Zoerheide comments,  

“Making a mistake opens a greater opportunity to learn who you are than what you are.  Learning from success builds mental pride, but learning from failure builds mental health.  Resolve never to let failure fall asleep in your soul till it teaches you one truth.  The greater the failure, the greater that truth.”

There is a story told about the early years of IBM when an executive made a drastic error in judgement that cost the company $30,000.  IBM president Thomas J. Watson asked to see the guilty party who was sure he was going to be fired.  In their meeting, the president grilled the employee on the mistake, how it had happened, how it could have been avoided.  The employee thought it to be a form of slow torture.  Finally, he asked the president ‘why don’t you cut to the chaste and simply fire me?’  Watson replied, “Fire you?!  Are you crazy?  We’ve just spent $30,000 educating you!”

In this spirit and close to me I have found it fascinating how similarly, failure is seen as an asset at Microsoft.  So much so that a job candidate is rated more highly if they have failed at some point or another in their career.  In Microsoft’s annual business reviews, as well, it is widely understood that the big bosses are less impressed by spectacular results than a thorough understanding of your business no matter what direction it is going in.  In other words, it is far better to have failed and know why than to succeed and not know why.  It is better to understand why and know what you are going to do to improve things, than to have wonderful success, but not know what based it, was it dumb luck, can it be copied in other places?

While the most obvious aspect of learning is intellectual in a practice makes perfect sort of mode, I think that the deepest understanding of something comes from appreciation.  In this respect, failure is the ultimate tutor.  We can learn the how’s and wherefore’s of something, but only when we have failed at it can we truly appreciate its complexity and subtlety.  Practice something and you will be acquainted with it; fail at something and you will appreciate it. 

And a final direct benefit to failure is an occasional hidden upside in its own right.  In fact a whole book called “Mistakes that Worked” by Charlotte Holtz Jones documents 40 familiar inventions and everyday items which did not come about by pre-meditated engineering or inspiration, but rather by dumb luck, or actually horrendously bad luck as they came often on the heels of a complete failure.  One famous example is Post-It notes which was actually an incredible failure as an adhesive until a Arthur Fry of 3M noted how handy it was to hold book markers in place in his church hymnal.  My other favourite is chocolate chip cookies (the story not the cookies).  Ruth Wakefield of the Toll House Inn near Bedford, Massachusetts had run out of baker’s chocolate in making her chocolate cookies so she improvised by crumbling up pieces of semi-sweet chocolate that she had on hand.  She hoped that in baking, the chocolate would naturally spread through the batter.  But the improvisation failed and the chocolate remained in pieces in the finished cookies.  Today chocolate chip are the world’s favorite variety with 7 billion consumed annually.

With each failure, let yourself grow by turning the adversity to advantage often through useful lessons but sometimes through hidden treasures.


“Get up and win the race”


Move on


We must forgive and heal ourselves in the face of failure.  We must look for the bright sides of strengthened faculties and other hidden windfalls.  But the final key to embracing failure is persistence. 

One of my favourite examples of overcoming defeat is the litany of failures strung together by one of the most revered figures in American history.  He too fell down many times in running his own races which included… 

    • Failed Business
    • Lost election to Illinois legislature
    • lost job
    • Failure to get into law school
    • Bankrupt business
    • Lost love as his fiancée died
    • Nervous breakdown
    • Failed bid to become an elector
    • Lost run for nomination to US Congress
    • Lost Congressional campaign
    • Failed application for land officer
    • Lost election to US Senate
    • Second Lost election to US Senate
    • And finally in 1860 – he was elected the 16th President of the United States

Obviously, very few people would classify Abraham Lincoln as a case study in failure.  In fact, I don’t think there is any type of failure or let down that he had not experienced.  And what did he have to say about it all?  He wrote…


“The sense of obligation to continue is present in all of us.  A duty to strive is the duty of all.  I felt a call to that duty."


Napolean Hill writes – "The majority of men meet with failure because of their lack of persistence in creating new plans to take the place of those which fail."


Growing up in the Boston area, you all will have a heartfelt appreciation for the rich vein of lessons on persistence and failure that is offered by the sport of baseball.  Robert Fulghum, writes in his book Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarden about the man who went to a rabbi for solace pleading, “Rabbi, I am a failure.  More than half the time I do not succeed in what I do.”  The rabbi referred him to the New York Times Alamanc on the top of page 930 to find peace of mind.  When the man went there all the man found was the listing of the batting averages of all the greatest baseball players and at the top was Ty Cobb with his lifetime average of .367.  The man came back and asked, ‘What does Ty Cobb have to do with failure,”  And the rabbi replied, “Ty Cobb batted 367 which meant that he got a hit one out of three times at bat.  He didn’t even bat .500 so what can you expect?”

Another baseball legend Babe Ruth commented even more optimistically, “Every strike brings me closer to a home run.”

And writer Michael Hilton commented on what he called the ‘Willie Miranda factor’.  As a child he was a huge fan of Willie Miranda a shortstop with the Baltimore Orioles in the late fifties.  He was astounded by Miranda’s fielding dexterity, his constant diving for seemingly impossible catches and his relentless efforts.  But when Hilton bought a Baseball Encyclopaedia and looked up to find his hero’s statistics, he was shocked to find one in particular.  Even though Miranda led the league in total chances, putouts, assists and double plays…he also led the league in errors.  That was because Willie was after ever ball, all the balls and his range was so incredible that he got his glove on most of them which meant he was charged with more errors.

I think that these observations from sport underscore the role that risk plays in our lives.  Risk by definition implies that out of a certain number of tries, and number outcomes will fail.  I also think that risk is a fundamental element of creativity.  Curiously, when a Midwestern university did a times-series study of students into their adult lives, a strong reverse connection was found between those who characterised themselves as ‘successful’ and those who were characterised as “creative.”

Returning to the example of Microsoft, software is really more of a creative art than an engineering science than people realise.  A critical ingredient for its success has been its persistence through these risks.  Bick comments…

"Microsoft doesn’t always get things right the first time. An old joke on the Internet goes something like this: At Ford, Quality is Job One. At Microsoft, Quality is Job 1.1. Microsoft has demonstrated that you have to keep trying and trying to sometimes get things right. The moral of the story: Learn from past mistakes and never give up. Stay with the difficult and see it through to the end."

Indian Elder Oriah Mountain Dreamer perhaps capture best the positive persistence of every day living.  He writes…

            “It doesn’t interest me to know what you do for a living or where you live or how much money you have…I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair…and do what needs to be done…I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and stand on the edge of a lake and shout to the sliver of the full moon, ‘Yes’

George Woodberrys comment is particular apt here that:  "Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure” 


 Get up and win the race!

I embrace all of these perspectives on failure throughout my life.  I have let people down, hurt them, dropped the ball, made mistakes and otherwise goofed up.  I regret any hurt done and naturally wish there was another way, but in the end, I embrace every one of these failures for making me who I am today.  While I am not proud of the failures, I am proud of their impact on me.

I hope that I haven’t failed today to encourage you to embrace failures, those painful blessings which test our spirit and strengthen our core.

  • Forgive oneself by keeping life’s failures in perspective and seeking out the balm of comforting sanctuaries. 
  • Grow by turning the adversity to advantage often through useful lessons but sometimes through hidden treasures.
  • And Move On by patiently persistently rising each time you fall.