Failure is a human failing

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
– novelist Samuel Beckett

We South Africans have a long cultural history that reinforces the conviction that it is bad to fail.

But it is human nature to fail, failing is necessary for us to learn.  Toddlers fall while they are learning to walk and we don’t think badly of them.  Falling off is part of learning to ride a bicycle.  But the first time we fail a school test, our parents aren’t happy and we feel ashamed.  What changed?

History is filled with stories of happy failures: Columbus failed to find the back route to India, John Pemberton brewed a medicinal syrup that later became Coca Cola, Wilson Greatbatch accidentally invented the pacemaker.

Famous people who were failures include: Henry Ford (his first two car companies failed), Albert Einstein (his teacher said that he would never amount to anything), J K Rowling (her Harry Potter manuscript was rejected by 12 publishers), Steve Jobs (he was fired by his own company, Apple), and the king of failure, Thomas Edison (he failed his way to success).  Other famous failures were Winston Churchill, the Wright brothers, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan.

You can’t succeed if you don’t fail

Its not the failing that’s the problem, its the not failing that’s the problem.  One of the world’s most celebrated failures, Albert Einstein said: A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.

But trying something new – or different – may be risky, even dangerous: in the early days of powered flight, “a pilot died approximately every 10 days.”

People are afraid to try in case they fail.  Those who succeed are not those who don’t fail, its those who get up again, and again, and again.  South African design icon, Veejay Archary repeats the quotation: “Your past mistakes are meant to guide you, not define you.”

Learning to take risks

How can you learn to take risks?  Look at challenges as adventures, as experiments.  Think of the fun that children have exploring.  And the outcome of your errors as discovery.  You may serendipitously discover something unexpected and exciting, like aspirin can also help people with heart problems.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]

In Think Wrong, John Bilenberg, creative facilitator explains that even creative people subconsciously solve problems by following predictable pathways, whereas “what you would want … is as many possibilities as you could imagine. ‘Thinking wrong’ is really about breaking those biases and synaptic pathways to generate a lot of potential solutions before you select and execute one.”

Go on, be brave, take a chance, try it.  You WILL fail.  But, if you don’t fail at least once, you haven’t taken enough risks!

South African’s who failed

Raymond Ackerman and Jannie Mouton were both fired from their companies.

Raymond Ackerman went on to build the Pick ‘n Pay Empire.  Jannie Mouton is the force behind the successful Capitec Bank and Curro schools.

raymond ackerman

It was the best thing that could have happened to them – and to South Africa.  Their ‘get up and try again’ attitudes are a motivation for us.

What do other successful South African business people say about failure?  At the launch of Moky Makura’s South Africa’s Greatest Entrepreneurs, Mark Lamberti (founder of Massmart Holdings) said that “Learning is a central part of an entrepreneur’s life – especially from your own mistakes.”

And successful business people make blunders too, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are bad at business, it’s because they are entrepreneurial and make honest mistakes.  That’s why the Companies Act introduced business rescue for good businesses that get into trouble.

Next time you fall, get up again – and succeed!



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Do you know of a South African businessperson who made a mistake and survived, maybe was more successful after it?  Who is your role model for sheer guts?

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