The Benefits of Failure

A friend of mine was telling me the story of being in a Chinese restaurant and upon receiving his fortune cookie and opening it, he was taken back by the wisdom written in so few words on a tiny bit of white paper. It said: “It is better to pursue a great vision and fail then have no expectations and succeed.”

If certain people hadn’t experienced failure in their lives, we today may not be enjoying the benefits of their failures. There are great stories of those whose lives were stamped with the mark of failure only to have become some the world’s foremost leaders in various elements of life. 

Tom Hendry from Cutting Edge Innovations is quoted as saying: 

“Well, I believe that every human being was born to achieve. Yet many times I have met people who believed that they were talentless, unintelligent or that their lives were ruined by adversity and ultimately failure."

"Failure is inevitable to every one of us, whether it be personal, in relationships or in business. Everyone fails at something. No one is perfect. It is also failure that will drag us kicking and screaming out of our comfort zones. It will take us on a journey deep within ourselves and that is where we will find our strengths. This is where we find the Benefits of Failure. It is also where we will find our greatness."

A good example of the above is the life of famed Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling. 

Rowling’s life is defined from being on government benefit with a young baby to amassing £500 million in 2009 (not that money is the ultimate definition of success but rather simply one measure). All because she didn’t give up when publishers initially rejected her book “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. Consider the following about her life.

  • Her parents were impoverished.
  • She left a bad marriage with a young baby in the mid nineties.
  • She lived in a small flat in Edinburgh, Scotland.
  • She was living on government benefit £78 per week.
  • The benefits of her 'failure' gave her the ‘freedom and drive’ to achieve through her writing.
  • She wrote first book “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” but it was rejected by most publishers.
  • Determination, resilience and persistence kept her going. Her book(s) were eventually published by Bloomsbury Publishing.
  • She gives back a great deal to charity, especially single parent charities.

In 2008 Rowling delivered an inspirational address to the graduates of Harvard. This is an edited excerpt of the first half of that address.

The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination

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. 

Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. What I feared most for myself at your age was failure.

The fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. 

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because 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. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.

So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.