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Honor your Failures

If there is one thing true of America, we like success.

Has there ever been a more competitive country in the world? We are the land that puts our three year olds into beauty pageants and score our deer and elk by a numerical point system to decide its true value. From grades, guns, women, fraternities, jobs, and money—we measure it.

When I first moved to Colorado, I thought I just wanted to be in the outdoors and catch a trout on a fly rod. But then it evolved to “How big of a trout?” Before I knew it, it was “How many big trout could I catch in one day?” “Could I catch more than my friend?” and finally “Could I catch more than all three of my friends combined?”

I believe we all seek the title of success. And while there are many definitions of it, we easily forgot what brings us there… failure.

You may not believe me, or may even call me anti-American for suggesting failure can be a good thing, but take it from the founder of IBM…

“Would you like me to give you a formula for…success?” Thomas John Watson, Sr., the Founder of IBM stated, “It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure.” Mr. Watson then continued, “[Most people are] thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all.”

While there are a few Charlie Sheen golden talents out there who come out the gate winning, most of us get there in time. We learn information through books and our fathers, but it’s when we get out there on our own when many of the great lessons come. It’s a big part of what being an entrepreneur is about, one who is willing to risk it all for an idea. We don’t win every time. But for those of us who have the fortitude to not let those failures define us, we take it and grow.

At 32, I confess that I’ve had far more failures at this point in my life than success stories. Far more learning experiences. I’ve probably had 10 businesses since I was 8 years old, and none to brag about. A few made money, most tanked, but each one just built on the other, still adding to my understanding.
I’m currently trying to build a company that actually has margins in it for me to fail. We need to give the room for that. Being new to something, we can’t expect to understand an industry until we have put time in it. The path to success is to learn from a few small mistakes, so when the time is right you can make wiser ones.

So I say keep striving to compete and succeed, it is the American way, but be reminded if you don’t have some failures along the way, and you aren’t willing to embrace them as part of the process, it probably means you aren’t risking enough. Honor your failures as part of a path to the better man you are becoming.

As Teddy Roosevelt says so well…

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

And I sure as hell don’t like losing. And therein lies the problem. The greatest lessons we learn are often on the flip side of a tough event. The process to success is paved in mistakes, struggles, and what some might see as complete failure.

I’ve written a few books, and more people will probably read this article in the next two hours than the book I spent two years writing. I’ve got a thousand of them sitting in my garage as a reminder. A lot of work for sometimes not much reward. Journalist Malcolm Gladwell spoke of the 10,000 hours it takes to become an expert. It was all those hours of work that had me writing and editing, and learning the craft of words. It didn’t start with success.

Embracing the process is about failing but failing forward. Not giving up. But you only find out after falling on your face. You can’t bypass it. There are plenty of intelligent people who don’t have wisdom. It is going through the experience and learning where we find not knowledge, but wisdom.

When Brokaw named our grandfathers the greatest generation, it was because of what they went through and had to overcome. War, depression, it was what made them into men.

We need to allow that process to come our way. One young man asked me the other night if we need to look for challenges and hardship. For some of us, it seems it has never been near our door. But the truth is, there are enough troubles out there that we don’t have to seek them out. We just have to persevere over the ones in front of us.

I think what we need is interpretation. The difficult times when we look out and all seems lost, we need someone there to remind us, this is just the steps towards something greater. On our own, we can’t see this.

By guest columnist Xan Hood, CEO/Founder Buffalo & Company

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