Calvin Coolidge on persistance

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race”

John Calvin Coolidge Jr., thirtieth (1923–1929) President of the United States

One of my motivational speeches

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.

6,000 times.

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…..

Overall happiness – part of success?

Although my primary focus is in motivating success, the following article discusses how to achieve happiness – clearly part of a successful life! One could define success as simply being happy with life, a strong point could be made that generally happy people are actually more successful at any given task. So, how to be happy? Once again, we see some decent advice coming from real research and not new age baloney.

The article (link) discusses methods to improve one’s long term happiness by reviewing, before bed, each day’s “happy moments” and the reasons for the happy feeling.

 “As a motivational speaker and executive coach, Caroline Adams Miller knows a few things about using mental exercises to achieve goals. But last year, one exercise she was asked to try took her by surprise.

Every night, she was to think of three good things that happened that day and analyze why they occurred. That was supposed to increase her overall happiness. Miller was assigned the task as homework in a master’s degree program. But as a chronic worrier, she knew she could use the kind of boost the exercise was supposed to deliver.

She got it.

“The quality of my dreams has changed, I never have trouble falling asleep and I do feel happier,” she said.

Results may vary, as they say in the weight-loss ads. But that exercise is one of several that have shown preliminary promise in recent research into how people can make themselves happier — not just for a day or two, but long-term. It’s part of a larger body of work that challenges a long-standing skepticism about whether that’s even possible.

The article then discusses the work of Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania (whose work led to the “think of three happy things” idea) and psychologist Ed Diener of the University of Illinois. These researchers believe that emotions such as happiness are malleable, and thus improvable, with the proper tools, and they are working to discover these tools.

I have long believed that an individual’s emotional state and mental resiliency are huge factors in determining their success and general course in life and it is delightful seeing these researchers working towards an understanding of these important life factors.

How can you drive your potential to improve?

You can drive your potential to improve by understanding your goals and motivation for improvement.


You must understand your goals, your real “know thyself” goals, to understand your destination for success. In other words, you must understand your destination if you are going to make any progress on getting there. This is the “what” of what you are doing.

At the same time you must also understand your true “know thyself” motivation for success. This is the “why” of why anything is done. Our motivation might be internal or external, physical or emotional, altruistic or pride… no judgment on the driver but failure to recognize and acknowledge your own specific motivation(s) will limit your ability to harness this motivation to achieve your success.

Summary and/or Implications
You must understand your goals and motivation in oder to select the best tools to drive your success. Goals are the what, and motivation is the why.

Risk versus reward

If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.

Jim Rohn, American entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker
(September 17, 1930 – December 5, 2009)

Hard work

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.

-Thomas A. Edison, US inventor
(1847 – 1931)

“Know thyself” – what is your definition of success?

The phrase “know thyself” is one of the oldest bits of wisdom of all civilization. According to the Greek traveler and geographer Pausanias the precept “Nosce te ipsum” (Know thyself) was carved into the court of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and the phrasing has echoed throughout the ages.

But what does it mean to really “know thyself” and what does it mean for achieving success? I’m writing this basic note to discuss a question I am commonly asked: “Am I a success?” My answer (“Well, what do you define as success?”) seems so pedantic on the surface. Dull and plodding. But the truth is success is defined by only by the individual, and only knowledge of your own definition of “success” will ever reveal whether you have succeeded.

This isn’t to say that society can’t or doesn’t provide a measure of success…but society can only measure what you have defined. My definition of a “successful tennis match” with my son doesn’t include winning the game, (or even keeping track of the score!), anywhere near as much as it includes conversation and camaraderie, an elevated heart rate and enough water to drink, and not losing all the balls we brought along. It wouldn’t make sense to ask anyone else who’s watching, “Hey, are we having a successful tennis match?” Their criteria for success are not my criteria for success. However, depending on my success criteria, it might be very helpful to ask them, “Was that ball in or out?” or “How many calories have I burned?”

Know thyself.

Side notes:
There is an informative “know thyself”-themed website here: (yes, the word order is correct for this website!)

Moving at the speed of change

The below graphic describes two key variables (focus of influence and speed of feedback) important to identifying which techniques are most useful to achieve success.

Focus of Influence
You can improve what you can change. If you are shooting free throws in basketball, you can change your stance, your strength, your movements, but you cannot change the ball size, the height of the basket, or the distance you must stand from the rim. In other words, all improvements in your free-throw percentage result from purely internal changes. Conversely, car salesmen market to the public, have no control over the quality of their product and can improve sales only by improving the quality of their interactions with potential clients.

Rate of feedback
Your ability to change is also dependent on the rate of receiving feedback on the success of your current methods. The quicker you receive feedback, the quicker you can modify your methods. Your golfing instructor stands watching and quickly suggests changes to your grip, your swing, that you can then immediately try to implement. Conversely, it may take weeks to shows results from a reputable weight loss program, and take from months to years to get useful feedback about book sales or career choices.

Coming up next, an overview of the recomended success techniques for these four main categories of situations.

Five steps to success

  1. Have a goal. But…you will fail.
    The path over the mountain will have an obstacle, a door, a landslide. A lion. Something. Expect it and be prepared to overcome it. Don’t be surprised and just stop.
  2. Overcoming the failure might be easy…
    Often times the failure is easily surmountable – a thin shell, a paper screen, and a little pushing will easily get you through. Sometimes the blockade is a little thicker – a wooden door, or even a steel gate. Pound your way through.
  3. …or might be challenging.
    Eventually an obstacle along your path to success can’t be pounded through. It’s solid rock, or a deadly dragon. Nothing to do, right? Nope, go back a bit and try another path – make another path. Eventually, you will make it over the mountain.
  4. Don’t give up just because the going is hard.
    At some point the path will become so challenging, so difficult, that you will consider another destination, another goal. Only do this if you truly have changed your destination – don’t stop your current pursuit if you still want that goal. However, it might well be that on the way to achieve your goal you learned enough about your goal that you realize it’s not what you wanted. Be prepared to switch.
  5. Enjoy yourself along the way.
    Finally, the most important point, remember that one’s true satisfaction comes from the pursuit, not the capture,…the game, not the goal.