As a way of encouraging my team to take more risks, I’ve been espousing the philosophy “Failure is the new black” and have been cataloging quotes on failure from famous people. But increased risk-taking doesn’t just come from pithy quotes, it helps to provide examples of people who failed… and thrived. Here are four such stories:
Henry Ford’s first automobile company went out of business and he left the second company after only a few months, even though it was named after him. Ford Motor Company would later become one of the world’s largest and most profitable companies.
Marilyn Monroe’s contract with Twentieth Century-Fox was not renewed, as they believed she wasn’t talented enough to be an actress. 60 years after her death many regard her as the quintessential American sex symbol.
R.H. Macy had several failed retail businesses, including a NYC Macy’s in 1858. By 1924, Macy’s Herald Square became the “World’s Largest Store” with more than 1M square feet.
Dr. Seuss’ first book was rejected by 27 publishers and he was about to burn the manuscript when the rights were bought by a classmate. He is now the most popular children’s book author ever.
As great as these are, the best failure story I’ve ever heard comes from Paul Smith in the book ‘Lead with a Story‘:
At 22, the company he worked for went bankrupt and he lost his job.
At 23, he ran for state legislature in a field of 13 candidates. He came in eighth.
At 24, he borrowed money to start a business. By the end of the year, the business failed and the local sheriff seized his possessions to pay off his debt.
At 25, he ran for state legislature again. This time he won.
At 26, he was engaged to be married. But his fiancée died before the wedding.
At 29, he sought to become the speaker of the state legislature. He was defeated.
At 34, he campaigned for a U.S. congressional seat. He lost.
At 35, he ran for Congress again. This time he won.
At 39, when his term ended, he was out of a job again. There was a one-term limit rule in his party.
At 40, he tried to get a job as commissioner of the General Land Office. He was rejected.
At 45, he was one of the contenders for the VP nomination at his party’s national convention. He lost.
At 49, he ran for the same U.S. Senate seat a second time. And for the second time, he lost.
At 51, after a lifetime of failure and still relatively unknown outside of his home state of Illinois, Abraham Lincoln was elected the sixteenth president of the United States.
Be a failure. Be Abraham Lincoln.
It’s also very interesting to read of the failures of the Wright Brothers (recently on NPR) and of one of the world’s greatest inventors, Thomas Edison. True success seems to be a result of learning from our failures and forging ahead rather than avoiding failure to begin with.