My name is John Norton and today I’m going to talk to you about the contradiction of failure and success. There are a lot of books out there that talk about success and failure….that order sounds a little better off the tongue…..but the deepest truth is that the greatest success always follows some kind of failure so today I will talk of the paradox of failure and success.
For this talk I will address three points of success. I have taught in the freshman engineering program for about 4 years here at Michigan, and I present my students with three characteristics of success: Vision, Overcoming Failure, and Multiple Routes.
I will provide examples of well-known successes who experienced considerable failure in their careers. Finally, I will describe the characteristics and attraction that true failure has for each of us. “True” failure, you say, what do you mean by that? John, I’ve failed 100’s of times, 1,000’s of times.
Ahh, but you are not a true failure if you are still trying, and that is the paradox of failure and success.
A paradox is a contradictory statement, one that conflicts with expectation. The paradox of failure and success is that only failures never fail, and almost all successes had numerous failures. So then, what should we do to achieve real success? The first step is vision.
Thomas Edison, founder of General Electric and holder of more patents than anyone else in history had considerable vision. Edison worked for more than two years to improve the lightbulb, it was already invented by other folks, but the problem was the filament, it would burn out after just a few minutes. Edison had a vision of a working lightbulb where the filament would last for months. Edison and his team at Menlo Park tried over 6,000 different filament materials, including thousands made from plants and animals, as well as every metal and mineral available. Can you imagine that scenario? Well, that didn’t work, let’s try again. Well, that didn’t work, let’s try again. Well, that didn’t work, let’s try again.
When do you stop? And when you stop, you fail.
Edison could not picture any experiment as a failure. Instead, he held a picture of success in is head, a vision of what he thought could be. As Edison’s biographer Paul Israel writes, “Edison saw every failure as a success, because it channeled his thinking in a more fruitful direction.”
The paradox: truly successful people use failure to drive their success. Edison had a vision of what the light-bulb could be, and so he worked to create it.
The first step to success is Vision. Have a vision of where you want to be. This one is obvious, if you don’t have any goal, all the effort in the world won’t help you get there. The clearest example of this in society is when established scientists and engineers give demonstrations to elementary school students, especially inner city schools with typically disadvantaged student populations. The electrical engineer isn’t trying to teach “how to manufacture a computer chip” to a ten-year old. The civil engineer isn’t trying to turn a third-grader into a bridge designer. Rather, they are trying to paint a picture of possibility to a pupil. Their intent is not to teach them a skill, but rather, to enrich a life by improve that person’s picture of their future.
As Peter Drucker said “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” If these students see themselves in this future, that is the first step to their lives.
Vision. Paint a picture of where you might exist in your future.
The next step to success, as you might have guessed, is failure. Failure presents itself as an obstacle preventing our passage to success.
Basketball great Michael Jordan was a failure. In 1978 when Jordan was a sophomore at Laney High School in Wilmington, North Carolina he was cut from the high school basketball team….he wasn’t good enough. Instead of giving up after failing to make the team, Jordan used the failure to spur himself to greater accomplishment, practicing hour after hour on the court. During an interview years later Jordan said, “Whenever I was working out and got tired and figured I ought to stop, I’d close my eyes and see that list in the locker room without my name on it, that usually got me going again.”
Failure. As you create the path towards your vision, you will encounter the door of failure. This door might be a paper screen. It appears significant, but actually only requires forward progress and you rip through it. The door of failure might be more significant, a thin wooden door like we have in our apartment. It provides brief security, a little sound protection, but in a fire, with my kids on the other side of that door, it would take me only seconds to bash through. Sometimes that door of failure takes a lot of effort, significant time, to get through, we need to use tools, hammers and drills, heavy sledges to bash our way past, but our path is on the other side, and so exert ourselves we must.
That door of failure will exist, often numerous times, dozens of times, blocking our way along our path to our vision. To succeed, we must know that it exists, and be prepared to muster the effort to turn that potential failure into merely an obstacle to be overcome.
Finally, we must realize that the path to success might entail multiple routes, that obstacles might exist that are simply is too much to overcome.
Former Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders was a success. Sanders was the 1988 Heisman Trophy winner, the first true college junior ever drafted by the NFL, the first running back ever to have 10 consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons, and at age 34 was the 3rd youngest person ever inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. His winding, twisting runs towards the end zone have been featured numerous times on televised specials of sporting legends. These specials show Sanders running for dozens of yards back and forth, just to achieve a few yards of forward progress.
Because of his unique style of football persistence, Barry Sanders is also one of the greatest NFL failures of all time.
Despite being the third greatest NFL rusher in yards gained, Sanders is also the NFL’s all-time leader in yards lost, losing 1,114 total yards during his 10-year career. Sanders is an all time record-setting NFL failure. His route towards the end zone was never a straight line, but because he risked yards lost, he excelled in yards gained. He was willing to try another path, literally another path on the football field, when obstacles preventing his progress – the players of the opposing team! – presented too great a challenge along one path.
Sanders was one of the greatest successes of all time because he was willing to change direction, even temporarily head away from his ultimate goal and risk taking a loss, to achieve the triumphant touchdown.
I can sum up these three aspects of success with a simile of a mountain. We have a vision of the other side of the mountain, that is what drives us. As travel on our way, we encounter obstacles that present themselves as potential failures, landslides, sheer cliffs, mountain lions – each one could stop us – that we need to pass to continue on our way. Finally, sometimes we need to look to an alternate path, we go over the mountain, around the mountain, sometimes we might even have to go through the mountain.
Each aspect of success presents itself as a potential failure. But what does it mean to really fail?
True failure expresses itself constantly as an excuse, a reason to stop, an obstacle you have never seen, a barrier bigger than ever existed. Failure is constantly there, presenting itself as a comfortable option, an excuse, a good excuse, the best excuse you could state: “I have never done that before.” Even better than that: “no one has done that before.”
Who can argue that? Presumptuous you, thinking you might be better than all that came before? No, give up now rather than risk wasted effort, that is the lure presented by failure.
Success is a challenge, a distant picture in your mind, blurry, indistinct. Who knows if it could be done? Success could be just past the next bend, just over a little hill, a small rise, some little effort all that remains, BUT YOU DON’T KNOW. Success could be a mirage, ever distant, a goal to pursue like Don Quixotic’s, never to be achieved. Do you want a wasted life spent pursuing some ephemeral dream? Give up now! Pursue something you KNOW you can achieve and be ever mediocre, average, one of the crowd.
Mediocrity is a comfortable chair that allows you to sit without the pain of being of loser, the pain of even trying. Is that the kind of life you want to lead? It’s your choice…..
Or do you want to join the list of great failures, Albert Einstein, Michael Jordon, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill and others, who failed so miserably in their lives….and yet are known, not for their sometimes dreadful failures, but for their eventual astonishing successes.
Is that the kind of life you want to lead? Again, it’s your choice…..