People make mistakes. That is why they put erasers on pencils. Sometimes those mistakes are small and can be easily erased or corrected. Sometimes mistakes have a bigger impact. And some mistakes are so big that they are considered failures. Regardless of the magnitude of the error, one thing is certain. While it is human to make mistakes and fail, no one is ever glad or happy about it. In the moment, no one thinks “Oh, I am so glad I made that error.” But what if failure is actually a good thing? What if failures and mistakes are actually necessary in order to succeed?
There are countless examples in history of people who made mistakes and endured failures – sometimes many failures… sometimes even big failures — on the road to success. But what if the idea that the road to success is littered with failure is not the exception to the rule but rather it is the rule. What if failures and mistakes are necessary elements to achieve success? Time and time again, we see people who experienced the disappointment and frustrations that come with failing, and then those failures ended up being not only instrumental to strengthening their resolve but key in directing their path to success. We see countless cases in history of mistakes that are important precursors to breakthroughs. In many cases, without those failures or mistakes, they would not have achieved their particular successes. Are mistakes actually road signs on the path to success? Can we actually profit from mistakes?
Carnegie: Failure and Mistakes Taught Him How to Succeed
Dale Carnegie (1888 – 1955) was an American writer and renowned lecturer / teacher of courses on self-improvement, salesmanship, public speaking and interpersonal skills. He was also founder of the Dale Carnegie Institute. Carnegie understood that mistakes are necessary in order to learn and eventually succeed. He once said “The successful man will profit from his mistakes and try again in a different way.” Most people know about Carnegie’s successes. Dale Carnegie wrote the massively bestselling book titled “How to Win Friends and Influence People” in 1936, which remains popular today even after nearly 75 years. It has now sold over 5 million copies and has been published in 31 languages. He also established the Dale Carnegie Institute which has graduated over eight million people to date. Most would agree that Dale Carnegie was successful.
However, Carnegie also knew something about failure. Actually born Dale Carnagey (he later changed the spelling to Carnegie in order to capitalize on the marketing opportunity since Andrew Carnegie was a well-known entrepreneur of the day), he was born into poverty on a farm in Missouri. In his teens, while having to get up at 4 a.m. every day to milk his parents’ cows, Dale Carnegie managed to obtain an education at the Sate Teacher’s College in Warrensburg, MO. But his first job after college was selling correspondence courses to ranchers. He moved on to selling bacon, soap, and eventually lard, and he was a good salesman. He could have just continued to be a ‘good salesman’ all his life. But Carnegie was not happy doing that.
After saving $550 (about $12,500 today), Carnegie quit sales and went to pursue his dream of acting. He attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. However, he found little success as an actor. Though he did act in one play, he soon found himself unemployed, nearly broke, and living at the YMCA in Harlem. It was there that he got the idea to teach public speaking, and persuaded the YMCA manager to allow him to teach a class in return for 80% of the net proceeds. During that first class in 1912, Carnegie ran out of material while teaching. Big mistake. That could have been the beginning and end of his teaching career. Instead, Carnegie improvised. He suggested that students speak about “something that made them angry”, and discovered that the technique made speakers unafraid to address a public audience. From that début, the Dale Carnegie Course evolved. Thanks to that mistake, Carnegie tapped into the average American’s desire to have more self-confidence, and by 1914, he was earning $500 a week (the equivalent of $11,700 today). That one mistake led to his success. And it was only after failing at acting that he found his true talent which was teaching and inspiring others. His failures and mistakes were instrumental in directing his path to success.
Churchill: Failed and Fumbled his way to Success
It seems that often people need to fail before they can succeed. Such was the case of Sir Winston Churchill. Indeed, Churchill made many major mistakes and experienced countless failures on the path to success. Starting at a young age, Churchill – a child born into the aristocratic family as son of the Duke of Marlborough — failed the sixth grade and suffered from speech impediments (both a lisp and a stutter). Money and position did not shield him from failures that he had to overcome in order to become a war reporter and later a politician and great orator. Churchill was also defeated in every public office role he ran for but went on to become the British Lord of the Admiralty, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and finally the British Prime Minister at the age of 62.
Not only did Churchill experience many failures on the road to success, he also made major mistakes in his career. As Lord of the Admiralty, he supported the Battle of Gallipolli during World War I which resulted in 120,000 soldiers injured or killed. That was a huge mistake, but that mistake helped prepare him for his later instrumental role in World War II. He also pushed for England to return to the Gold Standard in the 1920s which seriously hurt the British economy. Yet, his failures and mistakes served as important guideposts on the path to success. Churchill once said “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” Clearly he recognized that the failures and mistakes of his own life were instrumental in directing him to success.
Edison’s Mistake Led Him to See the Light
Thomas Alva Edison, one of the greatest inventors in history, was no stranger to failure or mistakes either. As a child, he was only educated in school for 12 weeks at the age of 7 before his innate curiosity, poor hearing, hyperactive behavior and slightly oversized head led his teacher to deduce that “Tom’s brains were addled or scrambled.” He was removed from school after that and was home-schooled and then self-taught for the rest of his life.
As an adult, Edison’s path in life bumped along without any seeming direction for years. Eventually, he learned how to use a telegraph and later moved to Boston to become a full-time telegraph operator. During the days of the “age of the telegraph,” Edison worked 12-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week for Western Union while “moonlighting” on his own inventions. It was during his time in Boston that he came up with his first true invention. He applied for and received his very first patent for a beautifully constructed electric vote-recording machine for the Massachusetts State Legislature. But when he tried to market it to members of the Massachusetts Legislature, they thoroughly denigrated it. At that time, political groups regularly relied upon the brief delays that were provided by the process of manually counting votes to influence and hopefully change the opinions of colleagues. Edison was told that his invention would not only destroy the only hope the minority would have in influencing legislation, it would deliver them over to the majority. Although very disappointed by this turn of events, Edison immediately realized his mistake. Even though his invention allowed each legislator to instantly cast his vote from his seat – exactly as it was supposed to do – his idea was so far ahead of its time that it was completely devoid of any immediate sales appeal. Because of his desperate need for money – as Edison was broke at the time — he made a critically significant adjustment in his approach to research. Thereafter, Edison vowed “never to waste time inventing things that people would not want to buy.”
That mistake directly led to Edison focusing on inventions that would be useful to the average person. This led to the eventual invention of the light bulb. It should be noted that Edison invented 1,000 bulbs that failed before inventing one that worked. The process of trial-and-error was nothing more than hundreds of mistakes which eventually guided him to success. Clearly, Edison was no stranger to mistakes or failure, and was able to profit from those mistakes.
Carnegie, Churchill and Edison are just three impressive — but not unique — examples of people who profited from their mistakes. They tried, stumbled, but ultimately learned, and allowed those errors to guide them toward success. Next time you, a coworker or employee make a mistake, instead of fretting, be glad. Consider it a gift. Think about what was learned and then look for ways to profit from that mistake.
Quote of the Week
“By seeking and blundering, we learn.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
© 2013, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.