In 1975, now-legendary Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour was a junior editor at Harper’s Bazaar. And then she got herself fired.
It can be hard to imagine someone like Wintour — perfectly polished, perceived as the best in her field, respected to the point of being feared — ever making a misstep. But the photo shoots that Wintour arranged were deemed by senior editorial staff to be too “edgy,” a sign of poor judgment and lack of fit.
Wintour’s signature eye for edgy fashion spreads is, of course, a huge part of her present-day reputation. Her failure almost 50 years ago is directly connected to her enormous success today. And, as she told Alistair Campbell for his book Winners: And How They Succeed, everyone should be fired at least once in his or her career, and setbacks are important “because that is the reality of life.”
Not everyone has a failure story as public as the world’s top fashion editor. In other professions, people fail a lot more quietly — over email, for example, or in papers that get buried in a bottom drawer. Failure can be a source of shame, a sign that someone isn’t good enough or smart enough or can’t get on the right track.
But it’s not just Anna Wintour who has learned to value setbacks. I’ve learned a lot about failure over the last 13 years as I’ve built JotForm, a business with over 4.9 million users. As a CEO, I have long valued failure as the flipside of risk: If you’re committed to a big vision, you’re going to occasionally have big letdowns.
But CEOs aren’t the only ones who have learned to think more constructively about failure. The paths taken by scientists, writers, educators and entrepreneurs can also provide ways to view failure as a form of inspiration instead of a black mark on your permanent record.
Educators turn failure into a teachable moment
“Failure is the greatest teacher.” — Udai Yadla
Capable educators do something crucial that we can all learn from: They turn failure into a teachable moment. After all, if you learn from an experience, if it makes you better or stronger or faster, if it clarifies your direction or refines your purpose, then how can anything truly be perceived as a failure?
Leaders learn this lesson early: Make failure productive.
I’ve learned to implement this idea and look at failure as a chance to do things better. What did we miss the first time around, how can we improve, and what other blind spots exist?
The very idea that failure can have an educational purpose has even inspired a new interdisciplinary facility at Columbia University: Education for Persistence and Innovation Center, part of the Teachers College.
We need to drag failure out of the dark. One professor wrote a journal article recommending that academics keep a “CV of failures” to “log every unsuccessful application, refused grant proposal and rejected paper” — and make it public in a bid to help normalize failure as a key part of the path to success.
Receptiveness to this perspective should start early. Research has also shown that when students are taught that success isn’t linear, when they see that even Albert Einstein tripped up on occasion, their grades and motivation improve.
And when parents have a more positive attitude towards failure — seeing failure as an opportunity instead of a sign of limitations — then their children have an expanded sense of possibility and are less likely to believe that intelligence is fixed.
Scientists see failure as a way to refine the path to success
“I have not failed; I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” — Thomas Edison
Imagine if Thomas Edison had given up on any of his early attempts to create a light bulb? Edison famously failed — over and over and over. And then he found a way that worked. And then he changed the world.
Failure is at the very root of scientific inquiry. Long before the breakthrough, dotting the path to medical innovations and technological advances, failure is a crucial part of the process. Scientists accept failure not as some grand sign that they are doomed to mediocrity but rather as a way to refine the way forward.
For scientists, failing is normal. After all, the failure rate for secondary clinical drug trials is said to be over 80 percent. And a whopping 90 percent of experimental drugs and therapies fail to complete the process from early development to Food & Drug Administration approval.
We spend too much time celebrating success and not enough time appreciating failure. A little more transparency might help — which is exactly what many scientists are advocating for.
If we could see the first, second and hundredth attempts at eventual success, the hypotheses that proved wrong, it might serve as an encouragement to keep on track with our own world-changing ideas.
Writers see failure as a temporary condition
“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success. I’ve met people who don’t want to try for fear of failing.” — J.K. Rowling
The story of author J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter series is now something of a legend: She was an impoverished single parent with a wild imagination who persevered to write some of the modern world’s most beloved books.
Rowling started writing the Harry Potter series when she had a newborn baby and was living off of welfare benefits. There can be no doubt that she has always been both smart and talented, but her life had taken an undesirable turn.
But Rowling didn’t internalize her situation and simply decide to give up. She accepted her setback but knew she could do better. And so she got to work, eventually overcoming her circumstances in an almost unimaginable way.
Rowling is now one of the richest women in the world.
Despite her failings, she decided to keep reaching. Rowling decided to treat failure as a temporary condition — one that could be overcome with some determination. She applied her imagination not simply to the stories she was writing, but also to her own potential.
And if she could envision a big, extraordinary world for Harry Potter, then she could do the same for her own life.
Entrepreneurs see failure as a necessary part of risk
“Achievement seems to be connected with action. Successful men and women keep moving. They make mistakes but they don’t quit.”— Conrad Hilton
Fear of failure can be so powerful that many people lead their lives to minimize risk. With every step, they calculate the safest possible move. They watch money grow slowly in a savings account, hold onto jobs that are unfulfilling but steady, and never say no to a sure thing.
I can understand the caution that underpins that perspective, but it can also limit potential. For many entrepreneurs, the bottom is this: If you’re not willing to take some pretty big risks, then you won’t ever see the big rewards.
The risk-reward relationship isn’t new, and it’s certainly not exclusive to entrepreneurs. (You might run into some high rollers in Vegas who like to make the same argument.)
But here’s another, complementary insight from people who build their own businesses from the ground up, including me: Accomplishing something that was immensely challenging and doing the seemingly impossible is far more rewarding than simply humming along and never having to make any hard choices or admit you made a mistake.
And that’s a lesson that entrepreneurs learn over and over about failure: Failure is a sign that you’re trying. It’s a sign that you want more and that you’re willing to fight for it. You won’t always get it right, and the payoff won’t always be clear. But if you hang in there, and you get back up, your sense of accomplishment will triumph over any rewards a sense of certainty can offer.