Reading everything from broadsheets to gossip rags, you will find semi-constant focus on the importance of embracing, learning or coping with failure. However, they might be missing the point; when it comes to success, the key thing about failure is neither coping with it, nor learning from it. No, it is simply disregarding it, and carrying on anyway. It’s good old-fashioned bloody-mindedness.
At the time of writing this, Tiger Woods has just won his 15th major, completing one of the most astonishing comebacks in sports history. James Cracknell has just won the boat race with Cambridge, nine years after fracturing his skull, and 15 years since his last Olympic gold. You have to wonder what sort of willpower it took to push through their respective injuries and issues, but it is also just this – they just won’t give up.
Plenty of successful people have hinted at this in the past. “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm,” as Winston Churchill said. However, there is now also research to back it up.
Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, author of ‘Grit – the Power of Passion and Perseverance’, studied high achievers over time, initially in education, but also in business and other settings. “In all those very different contexts, one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success,” Duckworth says. “And it wasn’t social intelligence. It wasn’t good looks, physical health, and it wasn’t IQ. It was grit.”
The ability to work through the failures and the knock-backs, over years if necessary, is what characterises successful people. They are the ones who don’t give up, and they are not necessarily the ones with the most talent to start with.
“What I do know is that talent doesn’t make you gritty,” Duckworth says. “Our data shows very clearly that there are many talented individuals who simply do not follow through on their commitments. In fact, in our data, grit is usually unrelated or even inversely related to measures of talent.”
Thomas Edison is an oft-cited example (of grit, that is, not lack of talent!). It took him 1,000 tries to develop a light bulb that actually worked. When someone asked him how it felt to fail 1,000 times, he said, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
Successful entrepreneurs are almost always people who kept trying despite multiple failures. This might also go some way towards explaining why so many multi-millionaires often started with decent funding, since repeated failures on large scale ventures is expensive business.
Failure is an inevitable part of life for all of us. The key to success is to accept it and carry on regardless.
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