“Success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill
When Bluebird K7 crashed in a lake in Coniston, England in 1967, it was the fastest speedboat in the world. Its pilot, Donald Campbell, radioed as the boat suddenly lurched up and tumbled over: “I can’t see anything – I’m having to draw back. I’ve got the bows up. I’m gone.”
For 34 years, the remains of Bluebird K7 and Mr. Campbell remained 150 feet below the surface of Coniston Water in the English Lake District. But when they brought the boat up in 2 001, it ignited a debate about whether it should be shown restored , as one group wanted (and was willing to pay $1.75 million to do) , or in its wrecked form.
Alan Cowell, writing in The New York Times, points out that this debate (“Should [the boat] stand as an emblem of Mr. Campbell’s successes before the crash or of his final disaster?”) – reflects a deeper schism (see Word to the Wise, below) in t he British intellectual personality: Do the British prefer to remember their successes or their failures?
Vicky Stowe, curator of the Ruskin Museum in Coniston, makes the case for failure: “You could argue that Scott of the Antarctic is more remembered than people who survived after reaching the South Pole, and a lot of people round here remember Mallory and Irving, whether they reached the summit of Everest or not.”
The British are not alone in their fascination with failure. American history is well stocked with its own stories (Custer’s last stand and the Bay of Pigs invasion, to name two). Which begs the question: Why is it that some failures are memorable while some successes are not?
If you consider the Scotts and Campbells and Custers, it seems that there are four elements that are often involved in a memorable event, successful or not:
It is historically important (i.e. first). It has the potential to change some thing significant. It has the power to inspire attention.
This is hardly definitive, but it’s enough to make you wonder if you couldn’t put your own indelible stamp on world history with some event that was (a) first of its kind, (b) culturally, politically, or socially significant, and (c) awe inspiring.
So far, I haven’t done anything like that. Nor do I have any such plans.
Writing books, building businesses, establishing a his tory of giving – these are all things that give me pleasure and (I hope) make a positive difference to a significant number of people. But will these personal successes be remembered in 10 0 years? Unlikely.
When I consider the most memorable events of my life, these come to mind:
Getting caught, at age 5, for breaking a car window Being mentally abused, at age 9, by a sort of nanny Being publicly humiliated by Mrs. Grow, my high school homeroom teacher
Gee, that’s embarrassing. Most of the memorable events of my life are negative.
If I give myself a different task – to identify my mos t memorable successes – a completely different list comes to mi nd:
writing my first poem playing my first French horn solo being president of my high school fraternity graduating college with a 3.83 aver age teaching my first college course writing my first book making my first million
And what about my failures? Which of them enjoy prominent perches in my memory?
my poor academic performance in high school numerous childhood truancies and misbehaviors being fired by Scotty for being “a hump” of a waiter (I still don’t know what that means. I was afraid to ask.) losing $40,000 on my first real estate investment losing $1 million on a magazine that flopped dozens of other business deals that didn’t work out
Yes, I’ve had plenty of failures. But I don’t spend much time thinking about them … and when I do, it is with a feeling of equanimity or amusement. I don’t feel badly about them . They seem like interesting experiences that happened to the person I was years ago. And it seems to me that’s a good thing. Being ashamed of failure must surely be very destructive.
I am ashamed about some of the mean, selfish, improper , or unethical things I’ve done to be successful. I’m ashamed for scolding people who were too weak to defend themselves properly. I’m ashamed for failing to recognize the contributions of others. I’m embarrassed by the way I crow about my accomplishment s. And I cringe every time I think about some of the foolish things I’ve said (and done) at office parties.
I’m proud of my successes, but I’m not ashamed of my failures – for one good reason: I consider myself to be a success. Why? Because, despite my many failures, I have to my credit many more successes. How was I able to rack up such a positive success/failure track record? By pushing forward on the next new project after the last one had failed.
Every successful person has failed. And not just once. The secret t o making something good out of your mistakes is to (a) refuse t o feel guilty about them, and (b) resolve to learn from them.
In ” Failing Forward,” John C. Maxwell says that if you want to accomplish great things in your life, you have to be willing to fail. And I know exactly what he means. “Failing forward” is Maxwell’s metaphor for how it is that we succeed: “If you march long enough, you will definitely stumble. Whether you stumble forward or backward or stop marching completely is entirely up to you.”
Point is, if you want to accomplish great things in your life, you must be willing to attempt goals that are big enough and new enough to change your business, social, cultural, or personal environment – but also so big and so new that you run the risk of failing. And when that happens (as it will), you need to be able to learn from your failure … chalk it up to experience and move on.[Ed. Note. Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]