The course to success is marked by failures


Seems like a hundred years ago I was standing in a cold winter boat shed talking with a single-handed sailor about to embark on his first ocean race.

What he was really concerned about was how he was going to cope with equipment failure and other uncertainties that were almost certain to pop up. He said he simply hadn’t seen enough stuff break yet to be able to predict what would fail or, when it did, whether he’d be able to repair it or even cobble together a jury rig.

In his bones and in his brain he knew there were simply no shortcuts to learning from experience and failure, be it an error in judgment, a misstep or a piece of gear that goes kapowie somewhere east of Timbuktu.

Whether in the cockpit of your boat or in your business, making mistakes — failing in some instances — is a painful but necessary step in the process of gaining experience and ultimately achieving success. Some would argue that success isn’t possible without a good stumble or two.

The importance of learning from failure came up in a recent interview in The New York Times with John Riccitiello, chief executive of the video game maker Electronic Arts. (Click here to read the story.)

“I gave the graduation speech at Haas School of Business at U.C., Berkeley, this year, and I told them the most important thing for them right now is to learn from failure,” Riccitiello told the interviewer. “You will fail. Failure is essential for success.”

It’s difficult for leaders to establish a vision for their company and get people to buy into it without the humility that comes from having failed — and without being willing to talk about that, as well, says Riccitiello, who ran Häagen-Dazs International when he was in his late 20s and became CEO of Wilson Sporting Goods in his early 30s.

“Occasionally you get a resume from someone in the business who says he’s outperformed his business-plan goals every year for 25 years,” Riccitiello told the newspaper. “He’s either lying or he’s done an awfully good job of selling poor plans. Because if you never fall when you’re skiing, you’re not learning. And if you never miss your plan, you didn’t set your objectives high enough.”

What Riccitiello didn’t mention in the interview was the importance of giving your workers the green light to make mistakes — to stumble, fall, to pick themselves back up and learn from those experiences. I think we’re all pretty quick to give lip service to the importance of learning through failure in theory, but less likely to embrace it in life’s Sturm und Drang. Something to keep in mind.

The key, of course, is not to make the same mistakes over and over.

The sailor I met long ago struck something at night — a container, he thought — lost the boat and had to be rescued. The hull failed. He didn’t, although he got a good dose of real-world seasoning in the process. I don’t know what became of him, but I am willing to bet that, looking back, he views the experience as one of those seminal moments in his life.

One dream sank in the Atlantic. With it, I hope, another was born.


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