Everybody enjoys a success story. Vicariously living out our fantasies through those who achieved success gives us hope it will happen to us. But, listening to these stories doesn’t do us any favors because those tales aren’t the whole picture: the struggles, the tough breaks, the defeats that set the stage for the eventual big win.
The fact is, while there are an infinite number of ways that successful entrepreneurs make their money, there’s only one thing they all have in common: failure.
There’s no shortage of examples of great successes who had to struggle before they became the winners we now know them as. Oscar-winner Steven Spielberg was rejected from U.S.C film school. Thomas Edison went through thousands of prototypes before perfecting his light bulb. “Colonel” Harland Sanders didn’t hit it big with KFC until he was 68 years old.
Even Bill Gates, maybe the most successful businessman in history, didn’t rocket straight to the top with Microsoft. It’s not a well-known fact that his first company, called Traf-O-Data, was an early attempt at using computerized data to improve traffic surveys for municipal governments. Gates and his partners spent countless hours refining their hardware and working out all the details to make the business work. But, when it came time to wow the county officials who would be their customers, the machine was a bust.
Gates and his number two, Paul Allen, were certainly discouraged but ended up being better suited for their real business revolution that was yet to come. To hear Allen tell the story: “even though Traf-O-Data wasn’t a roaring success, it was seminal in preparing us to make Microsoft’s first product a couple of years later. We taught ourselves to simulate how microprocessors work using DEC computers, so we could develop software even before our machine was built.”
That valuable experience in development led to the founding of the software company that would make them both multi-billionaires.
Now, this certainly doesn’t mean that failure is a guarantee of future success. If that were the case, private jets would outnumber commercial ones. What failure is, for the lucky ones, is a stepping stone to greater things. By refusing to let it define you, and learning from the experience, you give yourself the wisdom to make big things happen for yourself going forward.
One thing failure gives you is a picture of the other side of trying. As you’re getting ready to make your move, that unknown looms large. Once you’ve failed, as long as you’re still standing on both feet, you’re better off knowing that what hasn’t killed you has only made you stronger. Every successful business story starts out with failing. In doing so, you’re in good company.
When you do get moving, you’ll be better off with the knowledge gained from your endeavor. Life is a constant process of learning, and it’s a well-worn cliche that you learn more from mistakes than successes because it’s true. Seize the opportunity by taking a good, hard look at where you went wrong.
Failing hurts, that’s no secret. Even after reaching the heights of success, the failures that come are difficult as any. But, like a wound that heals itself, you end up with a thicker skin once the pain subsides. Being ready to weather every new storm means holding onto the lessons from the ones that have hit you already.
Your character is defined by your response to adversity. Since failure is a fact of life, there are ways to deal with it so you’ll be able to overcome the setback. It’s a process that can take some time, but responding healthily to lost opportunities is the only way to get back on track. Whether it’s your family, good friends, a favorite book or place to visit, let yourself recharge with familiar comforts. Then, get back out of your comfort zone. This resilience is a requirement for entrepreneurial success.
First, remember that failure doesn’t have to leave a permanent stain you unless you let it. Every future opportunity is a potential win, and you’ll only truly be a failure if you stop trying. Losing out will hurt, but the best salve is to get back to working on that next project. Hang onto the lessons and the knowledge gained, but forget about the pain.
Don’t fool yourself — this failure might not be your last. Embrace it. Risk, after all, is part and parcel of the entrepreneurial experience. When you’ve eliminated your fear of failure, you’ve given yourself the best possible tool for getting to where you want to be. Failing isn’t the destiny of a certain kind of person. Failing is just a byproduct of trying.
I’ll finish by telling you about one of the greatest successes who ever lived: baseball’s best hitter, Ted Williams. He retired with a lifetime .344 batting average, attaining over 2,600 hits in a 19-year career even while missing three years of his athletic prime to serve in World War II and another two years as a combat pilot in the Korean War. With a bit of well-earned humility, the Hall of Famer regarded by most as the greatest to ever swing a bat summed it all up by saying “baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.”
So just remember this: even the best baseball hitter in history failed 70 percent of the time he stepped up to the plate. So go ahead and take your swings; it’s what the greats do.