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Is success the absence of failure?

February 5, 2009

My schoolteachers told me that if I mess up in an exam, I can forget about being a perfect student.

My ex employers tell me, don’t want a ticking off? Then don’t screw up.

We learn about the golden rule very early in life. Success = zero mistakes.

Then off we go into the world and run smack into a brick wall. Head hurting, we reach out for a mentor or a motivational book who then lays on the secret.

“Go ahead. Make mistakes. Learn. Don’t give up. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.”

Wait a minute. Failure is a necessary part of success? You obviously haven’t met my teachers and my bosses. Over there you screw up and they kick you in the butt. Hehe.

So people say one thing but practice the other. Why?

I have no idea.

As I watch inspiring movies or read biographies of famous people, I’m told that the secret to success is great ideas, determination and hard lessons, the kind we get from making bad choices. Fail? Bounce back. Fail? Bounce back.

ROTFL. Guess what I see. 95% of us would focus either on avoiding mistakes or how to get our legs out of the bear trap we’ve wandered into. There is no bouncing back. Not in school (your C’s and D’s stay on record forever) and not at work (try messing up a large project and see how long they’ll let you stay).

About 5% of us will disregard conventional belief because we have no choice or because we think we can afford to. Only about half of that will turn out to be great people. The kind who embrace failures for the lessons they bring and who might end up writing glowing biographies. The rest would rather fall back on the good old golden rule we learned in school – avoid failure at all costs.

This, I think, is the biggest reason why motivation seminars don’t work.

Isn’t it ironic. We spend the first half of our lives being taught that success is the absence of failure, only spend the next half having issues with it because it gets in the way of extraordinary success.

Is there a way to reverse this mentality? I think so, but that’s another story.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. LC Teh permalink
    February 5, 2009 1:46 pm

    There’s the boring spin about the 9,999 failures experienced by Edison before he came out with the electric lamp. No, they were not failures! They were only unsuccessful experiments leading to one successful invention. One rung up the ladder.

    We should see life as having to learn and ride an old fashioned bicycle. If you fell off and decided you won’t ever ride a bicycle, then you’ve failed. We have to get back up and ride that bicycle of life.

    As for success in life, it’s up to each individual to define his own. If we live by standards set by others, we’ll never get there because the goalposts are always moving.

    The bicycle analogy is interesting, its opposite being the old “once bitten twice shy” argument. The bicycle thingy applies to certain actions like toddlers learning to walk while others, like getting one’s fingers burnt in a dodgy investment scheme, is probably not something you wanna try again and again.

    I would love to set my own standards if the environment would let me. If we’re employed we have no choice but to live up to the boss’s standards, which we may disagree with. That’s why I broke away to set off on my own.

  2. February 5, 2009 7:54 pm

    Failures n mistakes are pretty different in my opinion. Failure means going down and not able to get back up. Mistakes, are not failures if you are able to correct them after making them. đŸ˜›
    As for exam…hm…if you get a D, is ok as long as your subsequent grades are A :p

    I know what u mean. The definitions are not always consistent. In school, make enough mistakes in a test and you get an “F”. As far as the system is concerned, you’ve “failed.” At work, if you make enough mistakes in a project, you can elevate its risk to a point where the project is deemed a failure. Again, make enough mistakes and your project will be deemed to have “failed,” even though it is possible to correct the mistake.

    In America, we get creative by calling a mistake an “error.” It makes a screw-up sound very professional and not personal. Its a favorite word used by CEOs and politicians to avoid blame.

    Oh, about getting D’s in an exam, bad grades can haunt someone for life. I’ve witnessed interviewers badger a senior candidate on why he got a few D’s in high school which must’ve been 30 years ago, as if it reflected his ability to do a good job today. The candidate didn’t get the job because the next guy simply had better grades. Yes, some interviewers are that small minded.

  3. February 6, 2009 9:17 am

    sad to say, most people are very result or exam-oriented. This is how our society works esp in Asia. I’m not sure about US n UK. Someone with all A’s is assumed to be better in terms of IQ and WORK, as compared to someone with few D’s. The reasoning behind such thinking? No idea.

    Some ppl cannot break away from high-school mentality all their lives. So powerful is the programming as well as the punishment for making a mistake. Many geniuses wouldn’t have a chance if it was these ppl who conducted their interviews.

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