“On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure.” That line comes from the opening of author JK Rowling’s commencement speech to the 2008 graduating class at Harvard University.
The top-selling novelist in the history of the world speaking to the graduates of the most elite university in the world could have picked any topic she wanted to address. And she chose to speak on failure. Why?
Most graduation speeches urge the hearers to dream big dreams, to trust themselves more, or to take initiative and get in the game. But JK Rowling isn’t most graduation speakers. She’s the author of the Harry Potter novels, which have sold more than 500 million copies, spawned a major media empire, and even spun off a series of theme parks. In short, JK Rowling is the most successful novelist the world has ever seen. Why would she choose to talk about failure? And why did she think appropriate to do so to the graduates of the world’s leading university?
JK Rowling chose to talk about failure, she told her audience that day, because failure was what she herself feared the most. Not poverty. Not relational dysfunction. No, not mediocrity…Failure.
Perhaps you feel the same way Rowling did. If you fear failure, you’re not alone. A 2015 survey by the social network Linkagoal found that 31% of adults say they are afraid of failure, more than the number of those who fear spiders.
Don’t let fear hold you back.
As an entrepreneur, you stress out and get sick at the thought of overseeing a business failure. You love your small business. You’ve created it, birthed it, nurtured it, and stayed awake nights with it. The idea that it might fail is too painful to contemplate. Besides, what would your friends, partner, parents, kids, or business school profs say if they knew you’d failed at your business? Most importantly, how could you face in the mirror while you shaved or put on makeup every morning to go back to the corporate job you left with such high hopes for entrepreneurial success?
Regardless of our individual reasons for holding it, fear of failure is one of those challenges that give each of us a common bond with all humanity. But being afraid of failure, though common, is also dangerous. In fact, fear of failure can sabotage your chances of success. If you are starting a business and you’re scared it might fail, you need to be okay with that. After all, virtually every successful person left a string of failures behind them on their way to the top.
Walt Disney got fired for lacking imagination. Oprah Winfrey was canned because her boss said she was unfit for television. Jack Ma, now China’s richest man, got turned down for 30 jobs in a row, including one at KFC where he was the only applicant out of 24 not to be hired. Rowling herself spent several years as a single mother living on public aid before she completed the first Harry Potter novel.
It’s no coincidence that in every success story, failure is inevitable. There’s a reason for that.
Six Reasons Why Embracing Failure Can Be Good for Business
1. Failure helps you learn to make better business decisions.
If your first business venture succeeds, you rarely know why. Maybe you made all the right decisions. Or maybe the market factors converged in just the right way to create a tailwind that propelled you forward. Or possibly you benefitted from sheer dumb luck. It’s hard to know what prompts initial success. With no context of previous failure against which to view that success, you can’t see the areas of contrast. Hence, you don’t know what to replicate and what to avoid next time.
Early failure, however, can lead to later success. If your first business venture failed, ask yourself: Why? Is it because you landed in a position you weren’t ready for? If so, it might be time to put your head down and start racking up the hours and hours of practice required to gain mastery in any field before you try again.
On the other hand, maybe you’re already great at what you do, and your failure had nothing to do with lack of skill. In that case, could you have failed because you didn’t stick with the project long enough? Is it a matter of perseverance? Knowing why you failed can help you avoid that mistake in the future. More importantly, it can teach you how to make better business decisions that limit your chances of failure and improve your opportunities for success.
2. Failure makes you stronger. (That’s not just your mom’s wisdom. Science says so, too.)
A recent study from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University found that young scientists who received big research rewards early in their careers were less likely to have “hit” research papers in their later careers compared to their counterparts who lost out on those early grants. Dashun Wang, the management professor at Kellogg who co-authored the study, said, “The losers ended up being better.” Or as mom used to say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Turns out she was right about that.
Now, all failure is not created equal. You don’t want to go around making obviously bad decisions just to create enriching, strengthening experiences for yourself. Failure isn’t a magic panacea for fixing whatever might be screwed up in your life or business. Don’t try to fail. Instead, be smart, disciplined, and creative. Do your best to succeed. But realize that when you do face failure, you can use the experience to get stronger emotionally, grow less risk averse, and learn to defeat your fears.
3. Failure helps you learn along the way.
“There are three kinds of men,” said humorist Will Rogers. “The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”
If you are like most people, you are not a reader or an observer. You are a fence-pee-er. As such, experience is your primary teacher. That’s okay because most people remember very little of what they read, more of what they observe, and nearly all of what they experience. Being an experiential learner can be a good thing, but keep in mind that every tough experience doesn’t automatically become a learning experience.
Not everyone learns from failure. In fact, entrepreneurs who fail in their first business, typically fail in their second one, too. Why? Did they learn nothing from their failure?
Actually, that’s exactly what happened. All the feelings of pain and frustration of their first failure faded over time, but these entrepreneurs never allowed those difficult emotions to lead them to the new information, skills, or self awareness they needed to make their second business a success. Don’t let this double-failure scenario happen to you. Turn your first “electric fence experience” into intelligence.
By the way, a compassionate but direct mentor can often help you transform your mistakes into wisdom, so seek out a business guru for yourself, someone you can turn to as you process any failures you experience.
4. Failure endows you with empathy for your team members who feel like they aren’t succeeding.
We’ve all made mistakes, and it’s those mistakes that give us compassion for others. When you’re sitting in the boss’ chair, one day you’ll look across your desk at an employee who has just screwed up. How will you respond? Will you address problems with an eye toward helping that team member grow? Offer correction in a respectful tone? Reprimand or discipline with genuine concern for your colleague and their family who may be affected by your decision?
Chances are, you’ll be more likely to offer grace after you’ve received it, more likely to empathize with your employee’s feelings if you’ve been there, and more likely to build a dedicated team if the members remember how you were on their side when they were down. That kind of leadership requires genuine empathy, which comes from having been in that same awkward, painful place yourself once upon a time and living to tell the story.
5. Failure makes people like you more.
When highly competent people make a blunder, observers tend to like them more after the mistake than they did before it. Social psychologists have a name for this experience. They call it “the pratfall effect.” Harvard University psychologist Elliot Aronson discovered the pratfall effect in 1966 when he and his colleagues performed an experiment in which they recorded an actor answering 92% of the questions on a verbal quiz correctly.
In one video, the actor then pretended to spill coffee over himself. In the next video, he didn’t spill anything. The students who saw the clumsy clip rated the actor as more likeable than the ones who only saw the actor behaving like a polished intellectual.
Be careful, though, because eventually the pratfall effect can eventually work against you. One or two public fumbles make you human. Too many mistakes, and people will perceive you as a buffoon. President Gerald Ford, for example, was one of the most athletic men ever to occupy the Oval Office, but he earned a reputation as a clumsy dolt after he slipped and fell on wet steps just once in public. So play the pratfall effect carefully. It’s a high-risk, high-reward leadership strategy.
6. Failure helps you build a culture of ongoing experimentation.
A leader who has failed often embrace’s risk freely. She or he is usually willing for team members to take risks, too. Once you’ve become comfortable with your failures, after all, you tend to feel more at ease with other people’s faux pas. That attitude can lead to a culture of ongoing experimentation that helps your company get better and better.
In an organization that values ongoing experimentation, leaders and followers have to believe there’s a better way to do things and then be willing to hypothesize, test, iterate, fail, and repeat the process until they discover that better way. Building such a culture takes patience, money, focus, optimism, and teamwork. Most importantly, it takes a willingness to fail. As Amazon founder Jeff Bezos famously said, “Failure and invention are inseparable twins.”
Superstars such as Bezos and JK Rowling speak candidly about their failures in interviews and speeches because they know how important those big mistakes proved to be in their own journeys to success. In fact, JK Rowling’s Harvard address became a book called Very Good Lives. Its most famous lines are probably these:
Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged…. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
Embrace the journey and look towards the future!
If your business, idea, or project fails — even if it does so on a grand scale — embrace the benefits that failure offers you. Let go of the inessential. Direct your energy into what matters. Determine that you’ll succeed next time. And rebuild your business on a solid foundation — rock bottom.
You can succeed. So go do it.