Let’s be blunt. Unless they’re exceptionally weird, no one sets out to fail. Failure, especially on a project you’ve poured your whole self into, feels awful. But with the right attitude, failure can actually be an incredibly valuable learning experience.
In fact, there are myriad examples of entrepreneurs who’ve built on failure to become world-beating examples of success.
But it’s not just founders who can learn from failure. Provided they’re given the space to, every worker on the planet finds lessons in it and comes out the other side more successful.
Don’t believe us? Check out these inspiring TED talks from people who came back from catastrophic failures in a variety of fields.
Richard St. John: “Success is a continuous journey”
A self-described “success expert”, St. John has had a pretty storied career. Starting out at Nortel Networks R&D Labs, he’s been a researcher, marketing guru, and CEO speechwriter.
From there, he started the St. John Group, a marketing communications company. He’s also run more than 50 marathons on all seven continents, has a black-belt in Judo, and spent a year travelling halfway around the world on a 10-speed bike.
But, as he explains in this talk, those successes have been accompanied by some serious failures.
Key takeaway: Don’t stop trying.
Kathryn Schulz: Don’t regret regret
In this TED talk, journalist and author Kathryn Schulz uses the example of her tattoo to illustrate why regret can actually be powerful.
Regret, she argues, shows that you possess two very important characteristics: agency and imagination.
“Regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly,” she says. “It reminds us that we know we can do better”.
Key takeaway: Regret can be a powerful motivator.
JK Rowling: The fringe benefits of failure
Look, we don’t need to explain who JK Rowling is. Unless you’ve spent the past few decades hiding under a rock, you know all too well how big a juggernaut the Harry Potter franchise is.
What you might not know is that she had to shop her initial manuscript for the series to multiple publishers over a period of two years before it was finally accepted.
In this talk, which is actually a commencement speech that Rowling gave at Harvard University, she explores some of the side-benefits of failure. These, she says, include a “stripping away of the inessential” (which allowed her to concentrate on Harry Potter) as well uncovering determination and strength-of-will she didn’t know she had.
Key Takeaway: In the midst of failure, you can find the keys to success
Tim Harford: Trial, error and the God complex
Tim Harford is an economics journalist and author whose Undercover Economist column in the Financial Times looks at familiar situations in unfamiliar ways.
His special interest though is in complex systems. In this talk, he argues that such systems form by trial and error and that trying to approach them in a straightforward manner just doesn’t work.
Instead, he argues that we should embrace failure and take a more improvised approach in tackling the problems we face on a day-to-day basis.
Key Takeaway: Things don’t always go to plan, and sometimes it’s better that they don’t
Diana Laufenberg: How to learn from mistakes
A US-based social studies teacher with more than 15 years of experience, in a variety of schools and locations.
In her talk, given in 2010, she speaks about how being aware of the mistakes she’s made as a teacher have ultimately made her better at what she does. Perhaps more crucially though, she argues that asking them to “always have the right answer doesn’t allow them to learn”.
And that’s a lesson more than a few companies could afford to learn when it comes to their employees.
Key Takeaway: Just because you were taught something, doesn’t mean it’s right.
Michael Litt: Why you need to fail to have a good career
Inspired by economics professor Larry Smith’s talk titled, “Why you will fail to have a great career,” Litt takes things a step further arguing that you actually have to fail in order to find career success.
Taking aim at all the excuses people use for not pursuing their dreams Litt says failure provides the ultimate experience needed for success: learning to get up and dust yourself off after a fall.
Key Takeaway: You will fail, but it won’t end you.
Allan Savory: How to fight desertification and reverse climate change
Sometimes making a mistake means having to spend a few more hours at work, or going humbly cap-in-hand to apologise to any affected parties.
But for conservationist Allan Savory, the mistake was devastating. As the TED blog explains:
In the 1950s, Savory helped create large national parks in Africa. But as people left this land to make way for animal reserves, Savory and his team noticed the land deteriorating and quickly turning into desert. After careful analysis, they determined that the problem was an over-abundance of elephants. And so in a politically heated move, they shot 40 000 elephants in order to save the grasslands.
Only, it didn’t work. Even with all these elephants killed, the grassland deterioration only got worse. In a powerful moment in the talk, Savory expresses his dismay.
“That was the saddest and greatest blunder of my life,” he said. “I will carry that to my grave.”
Savory spent the rest of his career trying to right that wrong and has found real solutions to the problem of desertification.
There aren’t many more profound stories of learning from and overcoming failure.
Key Takeaway: Even the biggest failures can result in solutions.
Have you learned from and overcome failure? Let us know in the comments section below.