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The paradox of failure: why it’s the key to success

Failure is paradoxically the key to our success. Here's why.

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Failure doesn’t typically have the best connotations. We fail an exam, and it impacts our chances of getting into our dream university. We miss out on a promotion, and it feels like our chances of climbing the career ladder crumble. It stings at the time, but failure is often a chance for us to step back, recalibrate and reassess our goals. 

If you’re on the lookout for signs from the universe, or believe in path dependency, failing an exam might lead you to realise you wanted to take a different route all along. As Alexander Graham Bell – and more importantly, Maria in The Sound of Music – once said, “when one door closes, another one opens.” It turns out that this is more than a snappy catchphrase: innumerable developments in science, technology and business have come about as a result of multiple failed experiments. Post-it notes, for example, were the accidental consequence of Spencer Silver’s attempt to make an extra-strong glue. Instead, he failed at his original task, creating a glue that could easily be removed. Years later, a colleague noticed that Silver’s failed glue could be used to stop bookmarks falling out of books, which birthed the Post-it we know today. Who knows – your next big failure could turn out to be a million dollar idea. 

The startup world is full of quotes about this subject, which is unsurprising given that 90% of startups fail. Jeff Bezos, the industry’s most benevolent and sustainable founder (just kidding), once said that “failure and invention are inseparable twins.” In fact, entrepreneurs love failure so much that they’ve even created a principle courting it: fail fast. The idea is that by testing out numerous variations of your product, or your marketing, or your branding, you can ‘fail’ quickly (ie, not achieve the desired result), and pivot to something else which could prove to be the winning formula. The principle isn’t perfect: it can be costly, and it can sometimes prioritise frenzied testing over level-headed reasoning, but the general idea can be applied widely, if only to help us get used to the idea of failure. Failure isn’t just okay – it’s often the very reason for our success. Through failing, we try something new, and eventually land on the golden solution. Through failing, we learn to be resilient. If you’re not failing, you’re probably not pushing the boat out enough. 

Despite what we might have been told growing up, failure isn’t finite: it just means there’s more work to be done. Fear of failure can add so much pressure to a situation that the undesired outcome is paradoxically more likely to happen. Instead, it’s worth learning to stomach failure, even if you can’t quite embrace it yet. Take the well-known (yet impossible to verify) story that sometimes circulates on social media, of the guy so afraid of failure that he applied to programs he had no chance of getting accepted to every day for a year, just so rejection letters wouldn’t phase him anymore. An unorthodox approach, but I suppose I shouldn’t knock it til I’ve tried it.  

Failure has played a big part in my life, in one way or another. After rejecting a place at Cambridge in favour of studying in Amsterdam, I almost got kicked out after the first year because I failed Predicate Logic. Twice. It doesn’t matter that Logic had zero relation to my degree, my interests, or my wider life in general – I had failed, the rules were the rules, and I had to fight for my place in front of the Board of Examiners. Fast forward a few years, and I applied to my dream Masters’ in Entrepreneurship. I had zero maths, business or economics background, so I was rejected. I appealed, and was rejected again. I appealed the second rejection, and was rejected for the third time in a month. Weirdly enough, opening those “We regret to inform you…” emails isn’t my favourite hobby. I was tempted to accept the failure and meekly return to the Humanities with my tail between my legs, but I gave it one last shot. On my fourth try in the same month, I was accepted into the programme after pointing out that Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates technically didn’t meet the admission requirement either, given they’d both dropped out of their undergraduate degrees. Slightly ballsy, but it worked. 

On a more serious note, other failures turned out to be (cliché alert) blessings in disguise. Since I was a teenager, I’d always wanted to work at this one famous advertising agency. I was in the final two, and spent the week before the final interview silently praying to a vague higher power, but didn’t get the job. I got the email while at brunch with a friend, and sulked through my scrambled eggs. After that, I joined a small PR firm, but quit after a few months due to the ultra dodgy founder. I wallowed for a hot minute, but the unexpected unemployment forced me to act fast, and I started my own business the same month that I still run happily (and which, in the first year, made more than double the salary the PR firm had offered me. Thank you, universe, for my failure to stay in the job.) I love running my own businesses, and I wouldn’t trade this career for any of the jobs I’ve been rejected from – so yes, I’m grateful for my failures. While I’m not fond of the expression, “you either win or learn” has turned out to be true for me, and it’s a statement I try to remember when I’m in a rocky situation. Most importantly, don’t let the fear of failure rush you into anything, whether that’s in your career or personal life. Every decision is best made with a level head – and if worse comes to worst, you’ll find a way to make it work.

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