The Power of Failure: 27 Ways to Turn Life's Setbacks into Success


"Failure" is one of the most dreaded words in the English language. The very idea of failing is enough to stop most people in their tracks. It can cause the majority to simply pack up, turn around and retreat without even trying. Yet it is through seeming failure that most of life's greatest successes are achieved. The Power of Failure is designed to provide simple yet profound ways to turn what appear to be failures into successes. It contains practical prescriptions for successfully meeting some of life's most common setbacks. The lessons of

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The Power of Failure: 27 Ways to Turn Life's Setbacks Into Success

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"Failure" is one of the most dreaded words in the English language. The very idea of failing is enough to stop most people in their tracks. It can cause the majority to simply pack up, turn around and retreat without even trying. Yet it is through seeming failure that most of life's greatest successes are achieved. The Power of Failure is designed to provide simple yet profound ways to turn what appear to be failures into successes. It contains practical prescriptions for successfully meeting some of life's most common setbacks. The lessons of this book can help us all find the opportunities that are just waiting to be discovered in the challenges we face every day. This book is about failure, but failure in a whole new light. It is about how to Fail To Succeed.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781576751329
  • Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/28/2002
  • Pages: 128
  • Sales rank: 1,459,727
  • Product dimensions: 5.48 (w) x 8.64 (h) x 0.49 (d)

Meet the Author

CHARLES C. MANZ, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Management at Arizona State University. He is coauthor of SuperLeadership: Leading Others to Lead Themselves and the author of Mastering Self-Leadership: Empowering Yourself for Personal Excellence.
HENRY P. SIMS, Jr. Ph.D., is Professor of Management and Organization at the University of Maryland. He is coauthor of SuperLeadership: Leading Others to Lead Themselves, The New Leadership Paradigm, and The Thinking Organization.

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Read an Excerpt


27 Ways to Turn Life's Setbacks into Success
By Charles C. Manz

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2002 Charles C. Manz
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57675-132-9

Chapter One

To Succeed More, Fail More

Failure is the foundation of success, and the means by which it is achieved. —Lao Tzu

An aspiring young man once asked a very prominent CEO how he could become more successful. The CEO was Tom Watson of IBM, who reportedly responded that if the young man wanted to become more successful he should do the seemingly unthinkable—fail. In fact, Watson advised that he should double his failure rate. At first glance this is an odd prescription indeed. Upon closer inspection, however, it contains a great deal of wisdom.

A failure should not be viewed as the end of the story but instead as a stepping-stone to a larger success. If someone never fails, this is a telltale sign that he is not trying anything new or challenging. Mastering new skills and growing as individuals require that we enter unfamiliar arenas that can provide us with new knowledge and capabilities. These new ventures can be as varied as learning to play the piano, speak a foreign language, water-ski, or invest in the stock market.

The principle remains the same—you must experience failure in order to succeed. If you expect to learn without making a mistake, you are in for an unpleasant surprise. Imagine Mozart or Beethoven trying to compose music so cautiously that they never hit a wrong note. Do you think they would have been able to compose masterpieces if they totally avoided mistakes?

In fact, Beethoven was no stranger to failure. At one stage in his music career a music teacher said that he had no talent for music. The teacher even remarked that "as a composer he is hopeless."

The more you try to grow your knowledge and experience in new and challenging areas, the more mistakes you will have to make. Much of this potential for growth boils down to being willing to take risks. Author Carole Hyatt wrote that aggressive CEOs will tell their direct reports: "If you haven't failed at least three times today you haven't tried anything new." And she adds that avoiding failure leads to avoiding risks—"a type of behavior not well suited to most businesses in today's economy." So if you want to succeed more quickly, heed the surprisingly sage advice—double your failure rate.

Chapter Two

Be a Successful Learner by Learning from Failure

Bill Gates provided a practical perspective on the importance of learning from failure in his book Bill Gates @ the Speed of Thought, "Once you embrace unpleasant news not as negative but as evidence of a need for change, you aren't defeated by it. You're learning from it." He then went on to list many costly Microsoft product failures that provided the learning and opportunity for development of many of Microsoft's biggest successes, mentioning the following examples:

• Many apparently wasted years working on a failed database called Omega resulted in the development of the most popular desktop database, Microsoft Access.

• Millions of dollars and countless hours invested in a joint operating system project with IBM that was discontinued led to the operating system Windows NT.

• A failed multiplan spreadsheet that made little headway against Lotus 1-2-3 provided learning that helped in the development of Microsoft Excel, an advanced graphic spreadsheet that leads the competition.

Clearly Bill Gates had a view of successful learning from setbacks that helped him and his company to turn many potential failures into dynamic successes.

Without a doubt one of the most powerful pillars of long-term success is learning from mistakes. The importance of learning from mistakes for achieving significant success is so widely recognized that it might almost seem unnecessary to mention. A challenging, well-lived, and successful life will be filled with both ups and downs. Growing as a person and addressing significant real-world problems means we will surely fail some of the time, but if we learn from these failures and stay the course, we will eventually succeed.

Effective learning of challenging activities largely depends on how we think about failure. Just as we develop habits in our behavior, we also develop habits in our thoughts. And many of us have powerful thought habits about failure that include negativity and self-criticism and these demoralize us. The result is that we impede the very learning that we need to help things work out better the next time around. The challenge is to manage our thoughts about failures in such a way that we learn from them and consequently increase our personal effectiveness in our work and life.

If we can concentrate on learning from every situation, especially those in which we seem to fail, we will continually move ahead. This effective approach might be called learning forward. How can we learn forward through failures? To begin with, view short-term failures as the building blocks for future success and concentrate on learning all you can from them rather than trying to make excuses or trying to cover up these temporary setbacks. The trick is to always move forward as you fail.

For example, golfers would choose progressively more difficult courses and try more challenging shots as they progress in their game. At first, a relatively easy course and making conservative shot selections may represent the right amount of challenge. Over time, more difficult courses and more aggressive shots (trying to shoot over the trees rather than playing it safe and going around them) can be chosen. Undoubtedly the greater challenge will bring with it more mistakes and setbacks, but learning will increase as well.

As you master this process you can purposely choose new and greater challenges to learn from throughout your life that stretch you more and more. Fail at greater and greater worthwhile challenges, and you can learn on your way to ultimate long-term success.

Chapter Three

Recognize Failure as the Lifeblood of Success

We can take a variety of roads in the pursuit of success. One obvious route is to work toward a goal as unerringly as possible until it is achieved. Success is measured by our clear progress toward this end. Failure is not only left out of the equation but it is avoided above all else. It is seen as incompatible with success.

Unfortunately, this all too dominant perspective can create some real problems in terms of our ability to learn, to grow, and to take the necessary risks we need to be fully alive. In his book The Active Life, noted author Parker Palmer powerfully addresses this concern. He points out that in the West our fixation on success (or what he refers to as "instrumental action"):

discourages us from risk-taking because it values success over learning, and it abhors failure whether we learn from it or not ... [it] always wants to win, but win or lose, it inhibits our learning. If we win, we think we know it all and have nothing more to learn. If we lose, we feel so defeated that learning is a hollow consolation.

And as if this telling passage weren't enough he goes on to say:

[it] traps us in a system of praise or blame, credit or shame, a system that gives primacy to goals and external evaluations, devalues the gift of self-knowledge, and diminishes our capacity to take the risks that may yield growth.

We can choose another road (perhaps Robert Frost's mythical road less traveled by) that brings us face to face with failure as a primary vehicle for success. On this road failure is viewed as the very lifeblood of success. Palmer's words point to this kind of view.

Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda Motor Company, dramatically paints a vision of this alternative route to success. After growing up in an impoverished family in which several of his siblings died of starvation, Honda encountered dramatic setbacks— including the bombing of his original piston plant in 1945 and later its complete destruction by an earthquake. His personal philosophy of success despite, or perhaps because of, his difficult past embraces failure. When receiving an honorary doctorate at the University of Michigan he said in his speech: "Many people dream of success. To me success can only be achieved through repeated failure and introspection. In fact, success represents the one percent of your work that results from the ninety-nine percent that is called failure."

Once again we come face to face with the challenging prospect that setbacks are an unavoidable part of everyday life. We all fail. And not just a little but a lot, especially if we are taking the risks and pursuing the learning of new skills that enable us to meet exciting and worthwhile challenges. We are called to accept the infusion that these challenging times can offer to the health of our journey toward success. The worthwhile journey toward a rich, meaningful, and rewarding life requires a willingness to receive a good dose of failure—the ironic lifeblood of success.

Chapter Four

Learn the Challenging Secret to Successful Failure ... Patience

There is a powerful but challenging secret about the relationship of short-term failures to longer term successes. This secret is very difficult for many to accept and incorporate into their work and life, but it is an essential part of learning how to use the Power of Failure. The secret is patience.

In a recent interview for Fast Company magazine, Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, emphasized the importance of patience for succeeding in business. He explained that products and businesses go through three phases: vision, patience, and execution. And he said the patience stage is the toughest and most uncomfortable.

The vision stage generates a great deal of excitement and energy and the future looks promising. Eventually the final execution stage is a time of fine-tuning and figuring out how to be even more successful. Both the vision and execution stages can be very satisfying and comfortable. It's the middle "patience" stage that can be very difficult. Ballmer explains, "You have to cut out parts ... react to what the market is telling you. You get into trouble if you assume that you're going to reach critical mass too quickly—because it's most likely that you won't. Through all these trials you can't lose patience."

Ballmer notes that Microsoft's Windows software was no exception to this pattern. "Windows 1.0 wasn't a success. Windows 2.0 wasn't a success. It wasn't until we put out Windows 3.1 that we really had a big winner."

He goes on to explain that the recent setbacks in the Internet economy reflect a transition from the vision stage to the patience stage. He also points out that many entrepreneurs cannot handle the patience stage. Many seemed to believe the vision stage would never end or that execution would immediately follow without a need for patience. He cited small Internet companies doing Superbowl ads as an example of this misguided viewpoint. In the end he suggests that employees and investors alike need to either be patient or get out of the business.

I suspect it is fairly easy for most to identify with the sage advice of Ballmer. Anytime we set out to learn or accomplish something new and significant we likely face the same three stages and especially the challenge of the need for patience. Personally, patience is a tough challenge for me as I find myself failing on my way to what I hope will be ultimate success in a variety of activities.

One of my recent efforts has been to learn Tai Chi. I had a vision of the strength, flexibility, calmness, and other health benefits I would soon be deriving and how I would master the technique through the help of a professional instructor and the use of videotapes. I really wanted to go from vision to execution and had little desire to endure the patience stage. Consequently, despite my instructor's advice that I take it slow and start by learning just one or two poses of the dozens that make up a single form (a series of moves that completes one exercise sequence), I proceeded to try to learn a whole form, which should normally take up to a year or more, in about a month.

In retrospect I have to laugh a little at myself for trying to learn too quickly and lacking the patience to learn at an effective pace. My teacher pointed out it would take a great deal of work to relearn the poses in a technically correct way.

He ended by citing an ancient wisdom story, whose essence went something like this. A martial arts student was studying a new set of movements under a master and asked how long it would take to learn the new skills. The master responded that it would take perhaps two years. Being a bit discouraged and impatient with this answer, the student asked how long it would take if he would study and work very very hard. To this the master responded that then it would take him about four years.

The implication is clear—if we want to ultimately succeed in a significant way, we need to accept and be patient with the learning and development that go along with facing challenges. The bridge between short-term failures and ultimate success is a challenging one, but it may well be the essential secret to success—it is patience.

Chapter Five

Overcome the Success Catch-22

In the classic American novel Catch-22, a pilot in World War II decides he does not want to continue flying combat missions. He realizes the probability of being killed in action is high and feels that he has flown enough missions.

When he talks to the military doctor and requests to be grounded, the doctor explains that he cannot ground him based on his physical health. The pilot then claims to be "crazy" and requests to be grounded for psychological reasons. Despite the pilot's attempts to persuade him that he is crazy the doctor does not buy it. He also refuses to take the word of other bomber crew members who agree that the pilot is crazy. The doctor explains the crew members are the ones who are crazy because they don't ask to be grounded.

Ultimately, the doctor explains what he calls Catch-22: The pilot is not crazy because he asks to be grounded (a rational self-preserving wish) while the other crew members are crazy because they don't ask to be grounded (an irrational life-threatening choice). And the doctor does not ground those who don't ask to be grounded.

This comical paradox parallels one of the most difficult hurdles for people who want to be successful— what might be called the Success Catch-22. People who really want to be successful will be naturally resistant to failure. And yet we must fail, and usually many times, at least in the short run, if we are going to enjoy significant success in the long run.

For example, new employees hired into desirable jobs will likely want to be as successful as possible. They may go out of their way to avoid taking risks or doing anything that could jeopardize their new highly valued position. Wanting to be very successful can translate into a tendency to play it safe and not suffer any kind of failure.

The Success Catch-22 is that the more they want to succeed, the more they want to avoid the very kind of experiences (including well-fought failures) that will bring them the learning they need to be a long-term success. And good leaders will not let them escape these necessary developmental experiences (will not ground them) when they try to avoid challenging assignments or tasks that make setbacks more likely.

Taking on new challenges, stretching ourselves and growing as people, and learning significant new skills, can only be achieved with a good dose of failure along the way. Not failure that is final or sought for its own sake but failure that is a natural part of trying and learning new and challenging activities. We may want to be grounded from experiencing failure, but if we get our wish we will also be grounded from real success.

So what's the way out? It is to continually succeed even, perhaps especially, when we fail. We can succeed at learning, at persevering, and at continually growing and developing ourselves in the midst of what appears to be failure. So overcome the Success Catch-22 by learning to fail successfully over and over on the way to long-term success.


Excerpted from The POWER of FAILURE by Charles C. Manz Copyright © 2002 by Charles C. Manz . Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: Succeeding with the Power of Failure....................1
Part One Redefining Failure and Success....................11
1. To Succeed More, Fail More....................13
2. Be a Successful Learner by Learning from Failures....................17
3. Recognize Failure as the Lifeblood of Success....................21
4. Learn the Challenging Secret to Successful Failure ... Patience....................25
5. Overcome the Success Catch-22....................29
6. In the Face of Failure, Search for Opportunities, Not Obstacles....................33
7. To Be a Real Success, You Must Fail....................37
Part Two Winning Through Losing....................41
8. Sometimes When You Win, You Lose....................43
9. Sometimes When You Lose, You Win....................47
10. Succeed at Win/Win, Not Win/Lose....................51
11. Succeed at Being a "Tryer" Even When You're a "Failure"....................55
12. Help Others Win, Even at Your Own Expense, to Help Yourself....................59
13. Lose a Disagreement to Build a Relationship....................63
14. When You Feel That You're "Losing It," Declare "Temporary Sanity"....................67
Part Three Coping with Failure....................73
15. Accept When Failure Is Really Failure....................75
16. Choose to Be Happy Over Being Right....................79
17. Use EQ to Cooperate with Failure ... To Succeed....................83
18. Let Mental Storms Blow Through....................89
19. Use Failure to Master Yourself....................93
20. Discover Success at the Point of Maximum Pessimism....................97
21. Both Beauty and Ugliness Are in the Eye of the Beholder....................101
Part Four Collaborating with Failure....................105
22. Fail Small to Succeed Big....................107
23. See the Magnificent in the Minimal....................111
24. Succeed at Living in the Present Moment....................115
25. Continually Invest for Success ... Even in the Face of Failure....................119
26. Sometimes Choose to Get in Over Your Head to Get Ahead....................123
27. When You Feel Lost and Demoralized by Your Life Path ... Blaze a New One....................129
Getting Started: The Power of Failure Motto....................133
The Author....................147
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