Is failure the secret to success?

History is full of dramatic business failures, from the small start-up that couldn’t get off the ground to the massive enterprise crushed by legal or technological change.  And while the natural reaction to failure is to be disappointed or alarmed, is it always negative? Are there actually times when failure can foster future success in corporate America?

Is failure the secret to success 2

Well, if the past is any indication of the future, the answer is yes. As you can clearly see in this infographic, even history’s greatest enterprises experienced threats and failures. Some ultimately collapsed under the weight of failure, while others simply pivoted and learned from their experiences. If your business has recently failed or is likely facing a letdown in the future, it’s important that you learn how to harness these disappointments to fuel future success.




Business Failure and the 2 Most Common Mindsets

According to Baba Shiv, Professor of Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, “The trick lies in approaching it with the right attitude and harnessing it as a blessing, not a curse.” He also believes people – and businesses as extensions of these people – view failure in one of two ways.

The first mindset is “fearful of making mistakes.” This is the most common mindset, as it comes naturally to businesses and their owners. These organizations see failure as shameful and painful – and ultimately become risk averse. It’s this first mindset that allows failure to stunt growth and innovation.

The second mindset is “fearful of losing out on opportunities.” It’s this second mindset that’s become pervasive in entrepreneurial environments like Silicon Valley. Failure is seen as an exciting learning opportunity that ultimately leads to successful pivots.


Analyzing Your Business

As a business owner, you have to consider which of the two mindsets describes you and your organization. If you tend to resort to the first view, it’s critical that you pursue a fundamental shift in how you think. Once you shift from being fearful of making mistakes to being fearful of losing out on opportunities, failures will stop being so frustrating and start becoming signposts for impending success.

Kyle Jensen, the Director of Entrepreneurship Programs at Yale University, has a lot of good advice when it comes to failure and success. He’s founded or co-founded three different companies, each with varying levels of success. However, he argues that he’s learned more from his failures than he has through success. He’s ultimately decided that failure is an opportunity for improvement. “I tried to view it as ‘this venture may not be successful, but I’m gaining knowledge from it,” Jenson told


2 Tips for Correctly Harnessing Failure

When you talk to Shiv, Jensen, and other experienced business owners and entrepreneurs, you quickly realize that success is found in correctly harnessing failure. Let’s look at some tangible tips for how you can make this happen:

  • Build in time for failures. If you’re launching a new product, service, or brand, you need to build in extra time for failures. Launch the product knowing that you’ll fail and gladly accept these challenges as proof that your first set of theories regarding the market weren’t true. This will lead you to your next strategy. If it too fails, rinse and repeat. If you have a good idea, you’ll ultimately find success.
  • Don’t be careless. There’s a difference between praiseworthy and blameworthy failure. The former is indicative of exploratory and hypotheses testing, whereas the latter is related to deviance, inattention, or lack of ability. Make sure you’re being smart and don’t pursue failure. You should actively pursue success, while also being prepared for failure.

Failure isn’t a death sentence. Instead, it often fosters future success. Learn from past mistakes, study history’s greatest failures, and be willing to fundamentally shift your mindset.

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