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In my previous post, I discussed the results of scientific research that supports the argument that we learn more from our successes than we do from our failures. 

Moving away from the science, there are many others who believe that success breeds more success.  Their feeling is that success combined with strong self-awareness breeds healthy confidence in an individual or a leader.  It’s certainly a proven fact that individuals are inclined to follow leaders that have a track record of achievement. 

On the other hand, the supporters in the “failure breeds success” camp are numerous and quite convincing in their own right.

Who do you think knows more?  The business person who has dealt with business failure and risen above it to gain new found success, or the business person who has experienced one success after another? 

As a business owner and manager who operated a successful business without so much as a hiccup during the recent recession, you may not have faced the need to actively question and pursue insight into what was leading to your remarkable success. 

For many business owners, the recession was a terrifying wake up call.  These owners were forced to confront the agonizing question of what went wrong.  And the level of detail of this examination, in many cases, went far beyond the detail that is available in examining success.  The thoughtful examination of failures can reveal new possibilities and opportunities that are not otherwise seen without the benefit of this experience.  Don’t misunderstand the message here, it’s ridiculous to think that you should set about to fail.  However, your failure does not have to mean you are a loser – unless you choose to be a loser. 

A couple examples immediately come to my mind where the experience from previous mistakes and failures has provided valuable lessons for later success. 

I think of my parents, their relatives and friends.  This generation lived through the Great Depression.  They experienced first-hand relentless unemployment, foreclosure, bankruptcy and total despair.  From that experience, my parents gained a total disdain for debt or any investment that wasn’t backed by the full faith and credit of the federal government.  While they never amassed any sort of fortune, they never again lost what they already owned; and to them that was success. 

While on the subject of debt, I’ve seen too many businesses either fail or have a severely limited chance of success because of high debt burdens that could not be serviced after sales fell dramatically during 2008 and 2009 – a period commonly referred to as the Great Recession.  I’m certain that these failures will serve as great lessons to these owners and managers as they try to recover and keep their businesses competitively and financially viable.

I also think of some of the hiring decisions we’ve made in our CPA firm.  We’ve made our biggest mistakes when we’ve hired people primarily for talent, without giving enough consideration to how the individual would fit into our business culture.  The lessons we learned from these failures were painful but have made us wiser about the type of people we want to attract to our firm.

So what is it that we can learn from the ‘Great Teacher’ – failure?  I think an important trait I’ve gained from my mistakes is a better sense of “knowing what I don’t know.”  I also think it’s an important characteristic that all successful leaders seem to have.  Learn to be humble enough to ask for the advice of others when you are doing something that is new or different, and to anticipate what could go wrong.  A dose of skepticism might help you focus not only on the success you envision, but to also look at the issues from the aspect of, “what could go wrong?”  By addressing these perceived problem outcomes, you will be better prepared to avoid them.

While there is nothing to be gained from failure resulting from doing stupid things over and over, my view is that you can learn from both success and failure.  However, I feel that failure pressures you to make a deeper examination of yourself and the path you are taking.  It makes me think of what the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Do we learn more from our success or from our failure?  I’d like to know what you think.

learning from our failures

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