By Richard M. Franza, Ph.D.Guest Columnist
In the movie Apollo 13, Ed Harris, the actor portraying lead flight director Gene Kranz, had the memorable line: “Failure is not an option.”
While the real Mr. Kranz never actually used that phrase during the mission, he chose it as the title of his autobiography because he thought it reflected the attitude of the people who comprised “mission control” for the flight.
Many of us have probably adopted that phrase to describe our motivation to succeed in particular endeavor. Unfortunately, however, it seems our society has taken the phrase in a much different way – as an attempt to avoid facing failure.
In recent decades, starting primarily in the 1990’s, there has been a strong “self-esteem movement” that encourages us to protect our children’s self-esteem by, among other things, avoiding failure. The prevailing wisdom was – and in some cases, still is – that self-esteem would carry each individual to success. Unfortunately, such thinking has led to the proliferation of “participation trophies” and many young people having trouble “launching” into adulthood because they were sheltered from adversity.
Such problems are solved relatively easily if we realize the many benefits that come from failure, and embrace the old adage of “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Failure, and how to respond to it, provides a great lesson to us all, but particularly to children and entrepreneurs. Let’s look at how and why.
One of the greatest benefits is learning. I think we can all agree we have learned more from our failures than our successes. The career of Thomas Edison is a case in point.
Edison is arguably one of the greatest inventors of all times, with over 1,000 patents and credited with such inventions as the electric lightbulb, the phonograph, batteries and the motion-picture camera. Edison’s successes came after numerous failures. When asked about his setbacks, Edison commented, “I have not failed. I have found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
While not as famous as Edison (at least not yet!), I have seen this ability to learn from failure exhibited in my younger daughter, AJ.
Two examples in her life stand out. Despite exhibiting limited athletic ability as a young girl, AJ decided to play lacrosse as a pre-teen. Early on, her lacrosse endeavors were strewn with failure. Over time, however, she learned the game and how to capitalize on her strengths. Ultimately, she became an excellent high school player and is currently one of the top players on her college club team.
More recently, she chose to compete in a Professional Selling competition at her college. She was the only freshman against mainly seniors. While she did poorly against the more-experienced students, she learned lessons that will serve her well and lead to future success.
A famous quote that strikes a chord with me related to failure is one by Winston Churchill: “Success is not final; failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.” We learn from Churchill that another benefit of failure is that teaches us how to cope, how to be resilient, and how to be strong.
Character is developed as we pick ourselves up in response to failure. You may not know that Michael Jordan locked himself in his room and cried after he was cut from his high school varsity basketball team as a 15-year old sophomore. Jordan used that failure as motivation to keep working out when tired and turn himself into one of the greatest players of all time.
You also may not know Bill Belichick had a head coaching record of 36 wins and 44 losses, with only one winning record and one playoff appearance in five years before leading the New England Patriots football dynasty during the past two decades. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was a part-time starter at Michigan and sixth-round pick in the NFL draft. Their respective responses to failure have helped lead the Patriots to unprecedented success.
In my own family, my older daughter, Audie, still has her tryout number from when she was cut from a volleyball team as a teen hanging in her college apartment to motivate her to perform better every day. As you can see, failure is not a bad thing. As long as we learn from it and work hard in response to it, failure can provide incredible benefits.
This is a lesson I have definitely learned in dealing with entrepreneurs. I only know one entrepreneur personally who had great success in his first venture, and he has struggled to repeat that success. Most of the great entrepreneurs I know, however, have a long trail of failures and successes. They learned from the failures and have been humbled to not rest on their laurels.
So, despite what Ed Harris said, failure is an option, and often leads to long-term success.
The writer is dean of the Hull College of Business at Augusta University.