Want to Be Successful? Learn to Embrace Failure
Failure is unavoidable, and if you’ve never failed, then you’ve never tried.
You’ve never pushed yourself to take on new responsibilities at work. You’ve never picked up a new hobby just for the fun of it. You’ve never put yourself out there to your peers.
“Everyone fails,” is a pretty obvious statement, but it’s worth the reminder. We forget that others—whether it’s the friends and family in our lives or the celebrity on tv—all have their own failure stories. That problem is, however, that people tend to cover up those failures out of embarrassment or fear. We don’t typically see people bragging about their failures on social media, after all.
However, if you want to be successful—whatever success means to you—you can’t run from failure. You need to embrace it.
Rejection is Another Word for Opportunity
If you ever feel bad about being turned down by the college or job of your dreams, just remember that Warren Buffet was rejected by Harvard Business School.
Buffett has famously said that getting rejected by Harvard was “the best thing that ever happened to [him]” because the rejection paved the way for Buffett’s later acceptance to Columbia. He now credits his experiences at Columbia Business School for his successful investing career.
While researching Columbia’s programs, he came across the names of two people who would have a great influence on his life: Benjamin Graham and David Dodd. The two worked as professors at Columbia Business School, and, after reading Graham and Dodd’s book Security Analysis, Buffett sent them this note:
“Dear Professor Dodd. I thought you guys were dead, but now that I found out that you’re alive and teaching at Columbia, I would really like to come.”
Needless to say, that letter was enough to catch their attention, and Buffett was admitted to Columbia Business School. During his time there, Graham and Dodd became Buffett’s mentors.
Buffett has said that taking Graham’s class was “like learning baseball from a fellow who was batting .400. It shaped [his] professional life.” In fact, it was Graham who taught Buffett his “two rules of investing,” which Buffett still cites to this day:
“Rule number one: Never lose money. Rule number two: Never forget rule number one.”
Unfortunately, after college, Buffett neglected to take that advice when he made a career decision he would later come to regret.
Adapting to Failure
In his book The Snowball, Buffett reveals that he “would have been better off if [he’d] never heard of Berkshire Hathaway.” Buffett’s investments into Berkshire Hathaway were driven by ego and revenge, neither of which are particularly good reasons for investing.
In 1962, Buffett bought stocks in the then-textile company with the intention to sell the underpriced stock when its value rose. However, Buffett’s pride got the best of him when the company president, Seabury Stanton, made a lowball offer to buy back the stock. From then on, Buffett, thinking Stanton had tried to trick him, nursed a particular grudge toward the company president.
It was then that Buffett decided to purchase a controlling interest in Berkshire Hathaway with the sole intention of firing Seabury Stanton.
Buffett began to buy up stocks to the failing company, and, seeing that her days with the company were numbered, Stanton resigned.
The textile mills were, at that point, in imminent danger of completely shutting down due to competition from cheap overseas labor. When Buffett was ultimately elected as Chairman of the Board, he appointed Stanton’s replacement and poured a large amount of money into the mill. However, nothing could save the outdated business.
About 5 years after receiving that lowball offer from Stanton, Buffett was expanding into the insurance industry in an effort to keep Berkshire Hathaway afloat. He eventually established an equity stake in GEICO, which now provides the major source of capital for Buffett’s other investments.
Berkshire Hathaway officially closed its last textile mill in 1985. Although it is effectively a different company from what it was 50 years ago, Buffett kept the name of Berkshire Hathaway, choosing to keep it as a reminder of his failure.
The Meaning of Failure
Failure is a tool. It teaches us what not to do so that we’re stronger in the future. This seems like a simple statement—something that everyone learns as a kid—but it’s one that we often forget as we grow up and take on more responsibility.
I talk about Buffett’s story not to paint a negative picture of the man but rather to show you what is possible. It’s possible to suffer a huge professional failure and still be regarded as one of the most successful people alive. In fact, Warren Buffett has said that he would not invest in any business whose owner hasn’t failed at least twice.
Now, I’m not saying that everyone should go out and make rash decisions. There are safe ways to fail, and there are very risky ways to fail. Learn to recognize the difference. Learn how to balance the risk and reward so that your failures can be a teacher to you, not a punishment.