Monday Mornings with Madison

Failures are Stepping Stones to Success

Failure and success.  Winner and loser.  Just what is the relationship between these concepts?  Is there a vast ocean of qualities, traits, and achievements that separates failure from success? What makes a person a winner?  Is success something you are, something you achieve or something you have?  Do we consider someone a success because he or she has achieved certain milestones?  What are those things?  Education.  Wealth.  Respect.  Fame.  Power.  Control.  Relationships.  Position.

What about failure?  Does failing at some things in life make a person a failure? In truth, every person experiences at least some failures in their lifetime.  Even billionaire President Donald Trump has had businesses that failed.  That is just part of being human.  People make mistakes.  Social blunders.  Professional missteps.  Financial mistakes.   Business miscalculations.   Is it a cumulative effect?  Does failing a certain number of times make a person a failure?

How do we define failure and success?  Can someone who flopped at most everything he did for a large portion of his life later be seen as a success?  There is plenty of evidence that failure and success seem to go hand-in-hand.   Some of the people we most admire and respect in history were considered utter failures at one point in their life before achieving great success.   Just how did those failures become successes?  Is failure an essential part of the journey to success?  So what separates failure from success?

Failures are Pit Stops on the Road to Success

There is nothing quite as appealing as a story about a person who — after countless disappointments, financial miscalculations, professional crashes, or personal tragedies and setbacks – goes on to achieve tremendous success.  Rags-to-riches stories are favorites in both fiction and reality.  We love the underdog, who overcomes failure to eventually succeed.  Many biographies and biopics focus on people who overcame great adversity and collapses before realizing their dreams or triumphing in their endeavors.   In each case, success was defined by a different goal.  A successful business.  A new invention.  A coveted position.  A gold medal.  An Oscar award.  A Pulitzer Prize.  Fame.  Fortune.  Respect.  Whatever the measure, almost no one achieves reaches the pinnacle of their career without having some failures along the way.  Indeed, that seems to be the common denominator among all successful people.  The road to success had a number of detours and bumps – let’s call them failure pit stops — along the way.   We’d do well to understand how these people turned their failures into success.

1. KFC’s Colonel Sanders:  A Study in Drive and Determination

There are a lot of tall tales that have been circulated about the life of Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant chain.   Today, KFC is owned by Yum Brands, a Fortune 500 American company that owns 43,000 fast-food restaurants in 135 countries including the Taco Bell and Pizza Hut.   Yum made $13.1 Billion in Sales in 2015 alone, but Sanders — founder of KFC — was neither a billionaire when he died nor the person who turned his simple fast food restaurant into an international chain.  Sanders’ real story was far less fantastic and incredible, but perhaps more interesting.  Like most people, his rags-to-riches story was marked by hardship and fumbles before achieving success.

Born in 1890 in Henryville, Indiana, Harland David Sanders became responsible for feeding and taking care of his younger brother and sister after his father died when he was just six years old.  That’s how he learned to cook.  Beginning at the age of 10, he held down numerous jobs, including farmer, streetcar conductor, railroad fireman and insurance salesman.  By age 40, Sanders was running a service station in Kentucky, where he would also feed hungry travelers during the Great Depression.

Sanders eventually moved his operation to a restaurant across the street, and featured a fried chicken so notable that he was named an honorary Kentucky colonel in 1935 by Kentucky Governor Ruby Laffoon.  In 1952, Sanders closed his restaurant in order to devote himself to franchising his chicken business. He traveled across the country, cooking batches of chicken from restaurant to restaurant.  He struck deals that paid him a nickel for every chicken sold at one of his franchise restaurants. By 1964, just 12 years later, he sold his interest in the company – which had more than 600 franchised outlets by then — for $2 million to a group of investors.  At age 74, Sanders was a millionaire.  In a little more than a decade, Sanders had gone from struggling restauranteur to wealthy franchise magnate.

One quality that turns failure into success is drive.  When Sanders closed his one restaurant to focus on franchising his idea, he was already 62 years old.  He didn’t let age stop him.  He didn’t let a lack of money stop him.  Sanders was willing to go restaurant to restaurant, showing owners how good his recipe was one chicken at a time.   To have signed up 600 franchises in 12 years, Sanders had to have visited one restaurant per week every week for a decade.  Now that’s determination.

2.  President Abraham Lincoln:  Willing to Challenge the Status Quo to Improve Things

Abraham Lincoln’s life was one filled with trials, tragedies and failure.  His parents were dirt poor farmers who squatted on land to eke out a meager existence during his early childhood.  Then, Lincoln’s mother died when he was only nine years old, and he received only a couple of years of formal education when he was nearly an adult.  Most of what he learned he got from books he borrowed.  At the age of 22, he struck out on his own, making a living doing manual labor.  He chopped wood, worked as a shopkeeper, postmaster and eventually became a general store owner.

In 1832, Abraham Lincoln went to war as a captain and returned a private. Afterwards, he was a failure as a businessman.  He eventually became a lawyer.  But, as a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, he did not make enough money.  He turned to politics and was defeated in his first try for the legislature.  Later, he served a single term in the House of Representatives from 1847 to 1849.  He then returned to practicing law where he finally achieved some success, winning many cases.  He found his niche in life in being willing to fight for what he believed.  In 1858, he decided to return to politics and was again defeated in his first attempt to be elected a Senator.

When Lincoln was finally elected President in 1861, he was immediately faced with secession of seven southern states which led to start of the Civil War.   He stood his ground and led the nation through the darkest times in U.S. history and was assassinated before the end of his first term in office.

Another quality that turns failures into successes is a willingness to challenge the status quo, regardless of the cost, in order to make things better.  Lincoln understood that and paid a heavy price for it. Despite the tragic end to his life, Lincoln is credited with winning the Civil War, ending slavery, achieving the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution and reuniting the nation.  While his path to success was pock-marked with many losses and failures, few would argue that Lincoln was not just a winner, but one of America’s greatest heroes.

3.  Walt Disney:  The Search for What Worked

Walter Elias “Walt” Disney was born on December 5, 1901, in Hermosa, Illinois. He and his brother Roy co-founded Walt Disney Productions, which became one of the best-known motion-picture production companies in the world. Disney was an innovative animator and created the cartoon character Mickey Mouse. He won 22 Academy Awards during his lifetime, and was the founder of theme parks Disneyland and Walt Disney World.  But Walt Disney himself had a bit of a rough start. In the early 1920s, his company made a series of animated shorts for the Newman theater chain, entitled “Newman’s Laugh-O-Grams”. The company soon went bankrupt.

Then he went to Hollywood in 1923. He started work on a new series, about a live-action little girl who journeys to a world of animated characters. Entitled the “Alice Comedies”, they were distributed by M.J. (Margaret) Winkler. Hundreds of “Alice Comedies” were produced between 1923 and 1927, before they lost popularity.  Then Disney started work on a series around a new animated character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. This series was successful, but in 1928, Disney discovered that Winkler and her husband had stolen the rights to the character away from him as well as all but one of his animators.

That didn’t stop him.  Disney kept plugging along until he eventually found a recipe for success that worked.  With only one animator left at his company, he sketched the first drawings of what became Disney’s iconic character, Mickey Mouse.  Even the name he gave the character at first was a flop.  He named it Mortimer Mouse.  It was his wife, Lilly who said that the character needed a cuter, less pompous name, and suggested Mickey.  Disney took her advice and changed the name.  The rest is history.

One quality that was key to Disney’s success was the willingness to try many things until he found where he fit and what worked best for him.  He experimented with different characters and different business models until he was able to find what worked.  He was willing to fail and fail and fail again.  With each failure, he learned and adjusted, until he finally hit on a winning formula.

With 2017 well under way, entrepreneurs, professionals and business people will be focused on success.  Efforts to update, innovate and renovate will be attempted.  Some will succeed.  Many will fail.  That’s fine.  No one is 100% successful all of the time, and failing is not the end of the world.  The key is to not quit.  As Churchill said, “Never, Never, Never, Never quit.”  (The capital letters and repetition were meant to make a point.)  Success always includes – in fact it seems to require — failures, experimentation, and learning along the way.  Thomas Edison failed 1,000 times before he finally invented the lightbulb.  Anyone who ever succeeded most likely failed many times first.   What seems to separate the winners from the so-called losers is that the winners didn’t quit after a failure.  They had the drive and determination to persevere and they believed in challenging the status quo in order to make things better.  When they failed, they learned from those mistakes in order to do better.  Their failures became the stepping stones on the road to success.  The key is to stay on the path.

Quote of the Week

“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, only this time more wisely.” Henry Ford


© 2017, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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