Resiliency Is The Key To Success

“We are made to persist. That’s how we find out who we are.”
Tobias Wolff

Earlier in my career, I preached the Silicon Valley mantra of “fail fast, fail often” as a way of encouraging incumbents to take more risk. I even catalogued motivational quotes about failure. Over time, I realized that failure was not the outcome I was hoping for and it could even be counterproductive to advocate failure.

Instead, I began encouraging people to experiment more often and to be more resilient when things didn’t work out as expected. Experimentation and resiliency are concepts that people are more likely to accept and are easier to incorporate in an existing culture that may have become stagnant. When reinforcing the importance of resiliency, I use examples of famous people who tried, failed, persisted, and later became successful.

Here are four stories where resiliency was the key to success:

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 people still 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 had become 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 good as these are, my favorite story about resiliency comes from Paul Smith’s book ‘Lead with a Story‘. Here’s an abridged version:

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 resilient. Be successful. Be Abraham Lincoln.

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5 Responses to Resiliency Is The Key To Success

  1. Gaurav Jaiswal July 19, 2020 at 4:06 pm #

    A healthy reminder on the effectiveness of continuous experimentation (A/B testing)! My personal mantra in life – fail fast, fail fwd, quickly repivot and continue to make progress.

    I like the Abe Lincoln example, will use it with the kids to try something new. So far I’ve been using the Thomas Edison example with them to emphasize the value to relentless perseverance and experimentation (learned 9,999 ways of how NOT to design his patented filament)

  2. Michael Cylkowski July 20, 2020 at 7:01 am #

    “Fail fast, fail often,” was/is a ridiculous mantra to apply universally. Taking a risk, giving the user a minimal viable product, and abandoning the project or pivoting when warranted, is the life of a successful serial entrepreneur. But beginning with failure as being okay, is the wrong mindset.

    Would anyone accept an anesthesiologist, surgeon, or airline pilot with that mantra?

    • riusdisoehl July 27, 2020 at 6:49 am #

      I don’t think we would accept it after they are established in their professions which require precision, and accuracy, however, I would assume and expect that during their education and simulations they failed and had to learn how to do a procedure correctly and that those do-overs until they got it right, would make them excellent at their techniques and resilience in the face of constantly changing variables.


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