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  • Ian Henderson

Failing Well; Failing Forward

Updated: Nov 14



We are all failures - at least all the best of us are.

- J.M. Barrie


How many of you have never had an ‘OOPS?’ An OOPS is defined as an expression of surprise or feeling sorry about a mistake or a slight accident, or a memory lapse.

Comedian Brad Stine writes, “My favourite word is ‘oops.’ It’s a word whose only function is to say…it’s not my fault! You trip and you start to fall, ‘Oops.’ Spill something, ‘Oops.’ Don’t blame me! Blame gravity! That’s what ‘oops’ stands for: gravity. That’s why it’s spelled O-O-P-S: it’s an acronym for, ‘Oh. Our planet’s spinning!”

There had never been any argument about it - Fred was the wisest and shrewdest man in town. One day a young lad in the community questioned him about it.

“Fred, what is it that makes you so wise?” he asked.

“Good judgment, replied Fred, readily. “I’d say it was my good judgment.”

“And where did you get your good judgment?”

“That I got from experience.”

“Where did you get your experience?”

“From bad judgment.”

And experience is not something you can buy. If you don’t do a lot of silly or even sometimes stupid things when you’re young, you won’t have funny things to talk about when you’re old. And always remember these famous words from the cartoon character, Dennis the Menace, “People rarely make mistakes on purpose.”


And remember, admitting to a mistake is just another way of saying you’re smarter now than you used to be.

Singer Pete Seeger was once asked, “Do you know the difference between education and experience?” To which he replied, “Education is when you read the fine print; experience is what you get when you don’t.”

How come the dumb stuff seems so smart when we are doing it?

- Dennis the Menace

Let me ask you another question: How do you define failure? I searched numerous definitions on the internet. Here's what I found:

  • Not performing a duty or expected action.

  • A person or thing that proves to be unsuccessful.

  • Failure is to be viewed as the opposite to success.

Synonyms: defeat, wreck, catastrophe, blunder, flop, disaster, calamity.

Negative connotation after negative connotation after negative connotation.


Admitting to a mistake is just another way of saying you’re smarter now than you used to be.

Sometimes what we call ‘failure’ is really just that necessary struggle called learning. Imagine the impact if we taught kids that ‘FAIL’ is actually an acronym for ‘first attempt in learning.’ With a more positive perspective on failure, the more appropriate questions that should be addressed are:

  • Can we avoid failure altogether?

  • What does failure really mean?

  • How do you view failure?

  • What does it mean to fail well?

I recently read this (unfortunately I do not have the source): “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead-end street.”

I want you to establish in your life a culture that not only allows for mistakes, but actually encourages them. If you are not making mistakes, you are not trying anything new and you do not have a growth mindset. Ed Land, the inventor of instant photography, kept a plaque on his wall that read: “A mistake is an event, the full benefit of which has not yet been turned to your advantage.” If you choose to be a lifetime learner, you have adopted a growth attitude. This growth attitude focuses on learning from mistakes, thus, the only way to learn or improve at something is to try, fail, and try some more. Drew Barrymore adds, “I am not someone who is ashamed of my past. I’m actually really proud. I know I made a lot of mistakes, but they, in turn, were my life lessons.” Most of us think of a mistake as bad or a failure. However, because we are all human beings, there will be mistakes. The question becomes not, 'Will there be any mistakes?' but rather, 'When we make a mistake, how will we handle it?'

Billy Joel adds, "I have learned that no matter how successful or proficient or accomplished I might think I am, I am always going to make mistakes. I will always have to face some difficulties. I am always going to have to deal with the possibility of failure, and I will always be able to utilize those things in my work."

Charles Manz writes, “Failure is not something to be feared. It contains a positive challenge for successful living. Today’s failures contain the seeds of tomorrow’s greatest successes. The first step to mastering the art of failure successfully is to come to see failure and success in a whole new light.” In Japan, broken objects are often repaired with gold; the flaw is seen as a unique piece of the object’s history, which adds to its beauty.

If you are a card-carrying member of the human race, and you have made the decision to participate in life and not be a passive observer, you will make mistakes. You will also fail at times. And there will always be problems in your life. Failure happens, and we’ve all had our fair share of it. But from each failure, we learn two equally valuable lessons. One, that there was at least one reason we failed; and two, that we can rebound from failure. Failure is a teacher if we have the right attitude. J.K. Rowling writes: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not lived at all. In which case, you’ve failed by default.” If you try something you risk failure. If you don’t, you ensure it.

We learn wisdom from failure much more than success. Mistakes are the usual bridge between inexperience and wisdom. Experience is what you get when you were expecting something else. You are making progress if each mistake you make is a new one. Don’t be afraid to start over. This time you’re not starting from scratch, you’re starting from experience. Just try to not make the same mistake twice. Remember, you don’t learn anything the second time you’re kicked by a mule. Mark Twain sums this up nicely, “We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it-and stop there, lest we be like the cat that sits on a hot stove lid. She will never sit on a hot stove lid again and that is well; but she also will never sit down on a cold one anymore.” I like the proverb, “Some people are wise, and some are otherwise.”

Always look for the lesson! In one of Charles Schultz Peanuts cartoon strips, Charlie Brown is at the beach building a beautiful sand castle. As he stands back to admire his work, it is suddenly destroyed by a large wave. Looking at the smooth sand mound that had been his creation a moment before, he says. “There must be a lesson here, but I don’t know what it is.” Interestingly enough, while Peanuts has had enduring fame, Schultz had all his cartoons rejected by his high school yearbook staff.

In order to succeed, we must be prepared to fail and to fail well. What has been called ‘intelligent failure’ happens to the best of us and building the skills to learn and grow stronger from one’s mistakes is a skill that can be developed. Johnny Cash writes: “You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time or any of your space.”


An ancient proverb states, “Only a fool trips on what is behind him.”

Don’t be afraid to start over.

John Maxwell writes, “Teachability is an attitude, a mind-set that says, “No matter how much I know (or think I know), I can learn from this situation. That kind of thinking can help you turn adversity into advantage. The ability to learn from mistakes has value in all aspects of life.” The next time you experience a failure, think about why you failed instead. Look at it objectively so you can do better next time. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What lessons have I learned?

  • Am I grateful for the experience?

  • Where did I succeed as well as fail?

Maxwell continues: “The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure.” Perseverance is essential; giving up on your goal because of one setback is like slashing your other three tires because you got a flat.

So, the real question to ask is the not the 'But what if I fail?' question.

The answer to that question is, ‘You will.’

A better question might be, 'After I fail, what then?'


One thing few people know about me, is in the past (in my younger days), I taught many people the art of how to juggle. Juggling is definitely an art. Juggling is all about positive attitude. One thing I guaranteed learners from the beginning is that they’ll drop the balls whether they plan to or not. As a matter of fact, if they can’t drop the balls and laugh about it, it is unlikely they will ever succeed in becoming a juggler. It is essential that they practice failure; part of the learning process is actually dropping the balls on purpose. If they are not comfortable with the drop, their stance and balance will always be weak, in the fear that they will fail. Giving learners opportunities to try out new skills and experience the consequences of errors in a safe environment is a critical part of the learning process. The real skill in juggling is throwing the balls to the same place every time and moving your hands in the same way to position them correctly. A Chinese proverb states: “If you stumble, make it part of the dance.”

Some years ago, Art Fry, a scientist in the commercial office of 3M, came up with an idea for one of the company’s products. It seems that he dealt with a small irritation every Sunday as he sang in his church choir. After marking his pages in the hymn book with small pieces of paper, the small pieces would invariably fall out all over the floor when he would open the book.

Suddenly. An idea struck him. He remembered an adhesive developed by a colleague that everyone thought was a failure because it did not stick very well. “I coated the adhesive on a paper sample,” Fry recalls, “and I found that it was not only a good bookmark, but it was great for writing notes. It will stay in place as long as you want it to, and then you can remove it without damage.” The resulting product was Post-it Notes and it has become one of 3M’s most successful office products ever. At 3M, many of their most successful products, such as masking tape, began life as apparent failures.

There is an old saying that many great inventions are the products of accidents. As Thomas Edison stated so well: “Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do, doesn’t mean it’s useless.”

Cherie Carter Scott writes: “Human growth is a process of experimentation, trial, and error, ultimately leading to wisdom. Each time you choose to trust yourself and take action, you can never be quite certain how the situation will turn out. Sometimes you are victorious, and sometimes you become disillusioned. The failed experiments, however, are no less valuable than the experiments that ultimately prove successful; in fact, you usually learn more from your perceived ‘failures’ than you do from your ‘perceived’ successes.”

In 1962, four young women wanted to start a professional singing career. They began performing in their church and doing small local concerts. Then came their time to cut a record. It was a flop. Another was recorded. Another flop. The third, fourth, fifth and so on through their ninth recordings were all failures.

Early in 1964, they were booked for The Dick Clark Show. He paid barely enough to meet expenses, and no great contracts appeared from their national exposure.


In the summer of 1964, they recorded, “Where Did Our Love Go?” The song raced to the top of the charts and the Supremes gained national recognition and prominence for their musical sensations. Prior to their hit singles, the Supremes were known as the “No-Hit Supremes.” Their musical future was bleak, but they continued to believe in their musical abilities and passion for their profession.

I love nature. And I especially love birds; even have a heated bird bath in the back yard in the winter. I feel very blessed each spring to have robins nesting in the front area of the house, near the front door. And each spring, I celebrate the arrival of usually two or three babies, observing and watching them grow until it is time for them to leave the nest. It always seems each year there is one baby a little more adventurous than the others and sits on the edge of the nest, preparing for their initial flight. I wonder if birds ever have a fear of failure? They certainly are able to take a risk, they seem to just trust the process, perhaps with a little or lot of encouragement from their parents. How hard would it be for us to make that first solo flight with no practice or a rehearsal?

Guillaume Apollinaire, a French writer and poet, pens this so beautifully:

Come to the edge,

No, we will fall.

Come to the edge.

No, we will fall.

They came to the edge.

She pushed them and they flew.

Mickey Mantle, the great New York Yankee outfielder, once said, “During my 18 years, I came to bat almost 10,000 times. I stuck out about 1,700 times and walked maybe 1,900 times. You figure a ballplayer will average about 500 at bats a season. That means I played seven years without ever hitting a ball.” This observation, coming from one of the greatest hitters of all time, should give us some perspective about the value of failures and mistakes. Mickey Mantle is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Everyone makes mistakes, has setbacks and failures. Remember, you did not come with a book on how to get it right all the time. You will fail sometimes, not because you planned to, but simply because you are human. Failure is a part of creating a great life. Stand up to it and handle it with grace.

I would be remiss if I did not discuss the need to accept when failure is really failure. The assumption that failure will necessarily lead to learning is not always true. Sometimes failure is really failure and we need to accept that. So, when is failure really failure? The obvious answer is when we do not learn anything from a setback. Some other examples might be choosing unethical acts, acting selfishly in a way that harms others or committing to something and not following through because we don’t make a sincere effort to honour our commitments.

Let’s close this lesson with some words of wisdom from Actor Denzel Washington, and Actress Helen Mirren.

Washington writes, “I’ve found that nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks. Fall forward. Every failed experiment is one step closer to success. You’ve got to take risks. You will fail at some point in your life. Accept it. You will lose. You will embarrass yourself. You will suck at something. There is no doubt about it. Never be discouraged. Never look back. Give everything you’ve got. And when you fall throughout life, fall forward.”

Mirren adds, “For the moments when you’re challenged by fears like: Am I good enough? Am I smart enough? Will I fail? Look fear straight in its ugly face and barge forward. When you get past it, turn around, and give it a good swift kick in the ass.”


What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?

What would you create or attempt to change about your life if fear wasn’t an issue?

What is a mistake you’ve made which ultimately lead to a positive experience?

What mistakes in life have you learned from that you choose to never do again?

If we learn from them, why are we always so afraid to make mistakes?


Choose one quote every day or perhaps one or two every week if you like. How do these quotes speak to you? What applications do you see in your life? Share your chosen quotes with a family member, a friend, a business colleague. Create a ‘quote of the day’ club at work.

I have learned that there is no way to succeed in anything unless you are willing to try, and trying means you run the risk of failure.

- Bill Bixby

You don’t drown by falling in the water. You drown by staying there.

- Edwin Louis Cole

I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I cannot accept not trying.

- Michael Jordan

Perseverance is failing nineteen times and succeeding the twentieth.

- Julie Andrews

Never let the fear of striking out, keep you from playing the game.

- Babe Ruth

Failure is success if you learn from it.

- Malcolm Forbes

Many of life’s failures are experienced by people who did not know how close they were to success when they gave up.

- Thomas Edison

Don’t worry about failures, worry about the chances you miss when you don’t even try.

- Jack Canfield

Failure doesn’t hurt you. It’s the fear of failure that’s the killer.

- Jack Lemmon

Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.

- Henry Ford.

Flops are a part of life’s menu and I’ve never been a girl to miss out on any of the courses.

- Rosaline Russell

You can’t let your failures define you. You have to let your failures teach you.

- Barack Obama

I don’t believe in failure. It is not failure if you enjoyed the process.

- Oprah Winfrey

You don’t have to fear defeat if you believe it may reveal powers that you didn’t know you possessed.

- Napoleon Hill

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.

- Albert Einstein

Lord, deliver me from the man who never makes a mistake, and also the man who makes the same mistake twice.

- Dr. William J. Mayo

We made too many wrong mistakes.

- Yogi Berra

I will tell you that there have been no failures in my life. There have been some tremendous lessons.

- Oprah Winfrey

Experience is the name everybody gives to their mistakes.

- Oscar Wilde

Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life.

- Sophia Loren

Be brave enough to be bad at something new.

- Jon Acuff

If you’re afraid to fail, then you’re probably going to fail.

- Kobe Bryant

Failure is an important part of your growth and developing resilience. Don’t be afraid to fail.

- Michelle Obama

The only thing I regret about my life is the length of it. If I had to live my life again, I’d make all the same mistakes, only sooner.

- Tallulah Bankhead

Experience is that marvelous thing that enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.

- Franklin P. Jones

Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.

- Winston Churchill

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Don’t think of it as a failure. Think of it as timed-release success.

- Robert Orben


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