An article with a title like ‘Success Begins How with We Think‘ certainly sounds run of the mill and a bit patronizing, doesn’t it? Perhaps one of those books come to mind – you know, the kind with guy (or lady) with amazing hair, beaming a huge smile from the book’s shiny cover and promising to teach you all the secrets that will unlock your inner potential and turn you into a millionaire or an incredible speaker or the CEO of a billion dollar company?

Most of us, if we have been around the world of business for a few years, have seen books of this kind, along with the inevitable seminars or audio podcast or CD or, in the old days, cassette tape series. Each of these people are famed for talking about success and it is by talking about success that they obtained success – a bit ironic, isn’t it?

Well, guess what? We don’t want to talk about success today. We want to talk about failure. That’s right, trying hard and losing anyway. Often, that is where the gold is and by understanding failure we can then begin to look at success in a more meaningful way. What I want to do now is give you some straight talk about failing and maybe do more than just make you feel better for a little while.

Maybe I can give you some information that I discovered which will make you think better – by better, in this case, I mean more clearly and with a greater focus on reality. First, let’s take a look ‘personal myths‘, those stories about ‘successful people‘ that get so widely touted in the media.

Ignore Your Idols – You Don’t Know Their Real Story Anyway

Bill Gates

A lot of times, when we fail it’s actually us feeling like failures because we compare ourselves to rich and famous folks that we don’t even know. Getting them to sign an autograph for you is not the same as knowing them for who they are nor is it the same as observing them along their path to success. Perhaps you envy Bill Gates, one of the world’s wealthiest men. He certainly seems like a self made man, doesn’t he? After all, he dropped out of Harvard and despite looking like an extra from Revenge of the Nerds, he managed to create with Paul Allen an incredible company called Microsoft. He must have been made of steel and incredibly disciplined or maybe a supergenius to achieve such wealth from mere software, right?

BZZT! Before we get carried away with the story of Gates as some prodigal son who made good despite being misunderstood let’s look at some facts from dear old Wikipedia. We begin with Bill’s family roots:

His father was a prominent lawyer, and his mother served on the board of directors for First Interstate BancSystem and the United Way. Gates’s maternal grandfather was J. W. Maxwell, a national bank president.

Bill Gates and his family prestige

So clearly, money was no object for the boy and that alone is a powerful asset any entrepreneur could benefit from, not to mention the social prestige his family endowed him with. Most of us don’t come from a family of this standing. There is also this about Gates as a student:

Gates took an interest in programming the GE system in BASIC, and was excused from math classes to pursue his interest. He wrote his first computer program on this machine: an implementation of tic-tac-toe that allowed users to play games against the computer.

So early on, Gates gets excused from other classes to go work on the computers and then he makes games. Plenty of us would love to have had this kind of experience, but then again we probably did not attend one of Seattle’s ‘exclusive prepatory schools‘. Nor did we have a mother who lobbied to get those computers into our school at a time (this was 1968) when they would have been nothing short of remarkable, cutting edge technology that surely cost a fortune.

Gates loved the computers so much that he, Paul Allen and some students got banned for misusing them:

One of these systems was a PDP-10 belonging to Computer Center Corporation (CCC), which banned four Lakeside students—Gates, Paul Allen, Ric Weiland, and Kent Evans—for the summer after it caught them exploiting bugs in the operating system to obtain free computer time.

We won’t even get into the rest of this story, some rather blatant dishonesty during his early adulthood, the United States v. Microsoft antitrust fiasco that took place on live TV back in the late 90′s. Let’s suffice it to say that the real story of Bill Gates is of a kid born into a prominent, wealthy family who was allowed to focus nearly all of his time exclusively on working with computers. Is it then that big of a deal that he becomes one of the wealthiest people alive right in the midst of the rise of personal computers and the Internet? Not such a big deal, is it? And to think, all of this info is available publicly right on Wikipedia with sources cited, to boot.

More about your idol Sam Walton

Sam Walton

Now, the point here is not to disparage Gates, but to compare yourself as you really are. Were you born into that type of family with those resources available to you as a child? Did you focus all of your time pursuing something until you quite naturally became a genius at it? Probably not, so comparing your own success to Gates’ might not be a good idea.

One more example, this time from retail, is good old Sam Walton, another of the world’s most wealthy men, now deceased. Walton, as you probably know, brought the world Walmart and Sam’s Club. Walton is touted as another self-made American billionaire who struggled out of poverty in Oklahoma to found an empire from Bentonville, Arkansas. While it appears relatively true that Walton’s family was not that well off, he did begin practicing his business skills as a child by selling milk from the family farm. He had a paper route and despite such a low income he did manage to get into the University of Missouri, which he graduated from in 1940 with a Bachelors of Economics. There he joined a prominent fraternity as well as a ‘secret society’ – social networking was done differently back in the day. Hardly sounds like the down-home humble kind of bumbly old guy he was often portrayed as, right? Not at all.

Let’s go ahead and fast forward with a brief bit from Wikipedia, again:

Walton joined JC Penney as a management trainee in Des Moines, Iowa three days after graduating from college. This position paid him $75 a month. He resigned in 1942 in anticipation of being inducted into the military for service in World War II. In the meantime, he worked at a DuPont munitions plant near Tulsa, Oklahoma. Soon afterwards, Walton joined the military in the U.S. Army Intelligence Corps, supervising security at aircraft plants and prisoner of war camps. In this position he served at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, Utah. He eventually reached the rank of captain.

Are you still with us, here? Walton is now age 26 and he’s got his Bachelors of Economics, he’s made connections in a fraternity, he’s been trained as a retail store manager, he’s served as military intelligence, worked at prisoner of war camps and achieved a respectable rank in the US Army. That ‘gee whiz’ rags-to-riches story is starting to pale a bit, no? Well, it does get better. It turns out that Walton’s got a savings fo $5,000 to open his first store, a Ben Franklin variety store. As Wikipedia puts it:

In 1945, after leaving the military, Walton took over management of his first variety store at the age of 26. With the help of a $20,000 loan from his father-in-law, plus $5,000 he had saved from his time in the Army, Walton purchased a Ben Franklin variety store in Newport, Arkansas.

Walton’s loan is a quarter of a million dollars

So Walton’s got retail experience as well as experience managing people plus a degree in economics and maybe a little bit of training that came in handy while serving in military intelligence. Not too shabby. That $5,000 hardly sounds impressive, but according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ calculator that money, after you factor in inflation, is the equivalent of $63,640 today. And that measly $20,000 loan from his bride’s father? It’s worth a whopping $254,560 in today’s dollary. Yes, over a quarter of a million dollars given to Walton as a loan.

The point of explaining these two men’s stories is to shed light that penetrates beyond the ‘popular myth’ perpetuated by those with an interest in Walton looking impressive. That could be business partners or those who want to sell a book about him. If I can offer a little advice given to me when I was studying Journalism: always think about whose best interest is served by any story you hear. In other words, follow the money or see who stands to gain. For our purposes, consider how these men appearing to be brilliant stars who rose from being a nerdy college dropout or a poor country boy down South could serve to make them into legends.

While what they’ve done is certainly admirable, if you want to compare yourself with them always remember: you don’t and can’t know their whole life story. Even what we show here is only fraction of the truth of their whole life story. Focus on writing your own life story instead.

What Exactly is Failure?

Failure learning

This is a good question and it is one that we too often answer with something simple such as, “Not achieving the goal.” Well, perhaps that what it boils down to, but that is no way to gain an understanding of failure so that we can combat it. Let’s turn again to Wikipedia for a fairly comprehensive definition of failure:

The criteria for failure are heavily dependent on context of use, and may be relative to a particular observer or belief system. A situation considered to be a failure by one might be considered a success by another, particularly in cases of direct competition or a zero-sum game. Similarly, the degree of success or failure in a situation may be differently viewed by distinct observers or participants, such that a situation that one considers to be a failure, another might consider to be a success, a qualified success or a neutral situation.

In essence, “it all depends on how you look at it.” If failure is relative, then that means we can choose to use it either as a whip to beat ourselves with or we can use life’s lemons to make lemonade. Perhaps you aren’t currently the next Bill Gates or Sam Walton, but is it that simple or is the fact that you’ve not put in as many years or as much effort into achieving the goal? Being honest with yourself here becomes vitally important and the value of focusing on your goal, accepting your failures as learning experiences and adapting to the times becomes crucial.

Failure can be whatever we want it to be and the power of choice comes into play now: do you choose to fail or do you choose to allow yourself the freedom to make mistakes you can learn from?

Can You Fail Even When You Aren’t Doing Anything Wrong?

This is where things get interesting. Anyone interested in science understands that much of what science has given us came from experiments gone awry. As the former CEO of International Business Machines (IBM), Thomas J. Watson, tells us:

If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.

Sometimes, a small adjustment in your strategy is needed in order to achieve successful results. Other times, you have to make a drastic change to your ways. So let’s put this in terms that those of us struggling to achieve success online can really understand: you might even end up failing for years at achieving traffic even when your content is brilliant. So did Thomas Edison, by the way, who tells us:

Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.

Perhaps right now your business is tanking in a big way. Or maybe it is a lackluster ‘success’ that is paying a few bills, but not anywhere close to what you dream it could be. These situations could be caused by ‘doing something wrong‘ but that is not always the case. In fact, a recent article by James Dyson (founder of Dyson, a British vacuum cleaner manufacturer) in Today Online stated:

We make progress by making mistakes. While inventing the bagless vacuum cleaner, I failed 5,126 times. But prototype 5,127 was a success.

Dyson’s company spends more than $1.5 million per year on Research & Development. That gives you an idea of just how much Dyson and company are willing to pour into ‘failures’. Many of the world’s top corporations routinely pour millions upon millions of dollars into R&D of all kinds. Are you investing in your own business even when it seems as if you are failing? Sometimes you have to invest in your own business or even get an education from those who know about succeeding in business online in order to push forward and reach the goals you have set for your business and yourself. You might not being doing anything wrong, you might simply not have done it enough.

Hang in There & Keep on Failing

FAILURE is a lack of perseverance combined with a lack of skill.

To gain skill, you must stay persistent. You must keep educating yourself, you must keep trying and, by trying, you will fail plenty of times, but eventually persistence and skill will win out.

We’d love to hear your own stories of failures both big and small. Do you have any you would like to share? If so, leave us a comment below and we’ll be glad to get back to you as soon as we can. Also, if you have any questions be sure to ask because sometimes we can help solve each others problems just by confronting failure and asking for a little help. That’s what we’re here for.


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