In the breadth of human affairs, there is nothing more common than the presence of failure. Almost everyone in this world has attempted something in life that has succeeded in creating nothing more than a total, abject, unmitigated failure. During the course of my work in psychiatry, one of the most common themes of my sessions with clients involves working through failed endeavors: failed relationships, failed jobs, poor school performance, poor health, poor sports performance, loss of income in finance and business endeavors, the list is long and varied. Every time I face these situations with clients, however, I am amazed by the tenacity of human will, strength, and force of determination.
Most of the time, we do not expect to fail in the early stages of an endeavor. Failure is not an energy form that we tend to embrace. In our early years, most of us build up a huge wall of optimism and hope regarding life. As we age, this wall is adjusted, rebuilt, and reshaped by life’s responses to our best efforts. Sometimes, the response that life gives us can fill us with happiness, light, and peace. On other occasions, when life tells us that we are somehow not good enough, not smart enough, not quite up to the goals that we set for ourselves.
The pursuit of happiness and success is bound to be met with failure and disappointment. The fact is, life expects us to learn from our failures and has wired the human nervous system in such a way that we are forced to learn from the past in order to survive. History has taught us that the more we fail, the greater our success. As a matter of fact, history is full of people who might never have made a success of their lives without the challenge of early resounding failure.
The Power of Failure
Winston Churchill was a great man who failed the sixth grade, and was defeated in every single election for public office until he became Prime Minister at the young age of 62.
Sir Winston Churchill took three years to complete the eighth grade because he had trouble learning English. He suffered from a speech impediment, and had great difficulty pronouncing the letter “s”. It seems ironic that years later, Oxford University asked him to address its commencement exercises.
He arrived with his usual props; a cigar, a cane, and a top hat accompanied Churchill wherever he went. As Churchill approached the podium, the crowd rose in appreciative applause. With unmatched dignity, he settled the crowd, and stood confident before his admirers. Removing the cigar and carefully placing the top hat on the podium, Churchill gazed at his waiting audience. Authority rang in Churchill’s voice as he shouted, “Never give up!”
Several seconds passed before he rose to his toes and repeated: “Never give up!” His words thundered in their ears. There was a deafening silence as Churchill reached for his hat and cigar, steadied himself with his cane, and left the platform. His commencement address was finished. Because Winston Churchill never gave up, he is now remembered as one of the greatest world leaders of the twentieth century.
Sir Edmund Hillary
In 1852, the Great Trigonometric Survey of India determined that Mount Everest, until then an obscure Himalayan peak, had been definitively identified as the world’s highest mountain. This announcement captured the international imagination, and soon the idea of reaching the summit of the “roof of the world” was viewed as the ultimate geographic feat. Attempts to climb Everest, however, could not begin until 1921, when the forbidden kingdom of Tibet first opened its borders to outsiders.
On June 8, 1924, two members of a British expedition, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, attempted the summit. Famous for his retort to the press—“because it’s there”—when asked why he wanted to climb Everest, Mallory had already failed twice at reaching the summit. The two men were last spotted “going strong” for the top until the clouds perpetually swirling around Everest engulfed them. Then, they vanished.
Mallory’s body was not found for another 75 years, in May 1999. No evidence was found on his body—such as a camera containing photos of the summit, or a diary entry recording their time of arrival at the summit—to clear up the mystery of whether these two Everest pioneers made it to the top before the mountain killed them.
In 1952, Edmund Hillary attempted to climb Mount Everest, but failed. A few weeks after his first failed attempt, he was asked to speak to a prestigious group in England.
Hillary walked on stage to thunderous applause. The audience showered Hillary with praise because he had attempted something that no other human had ever completed. However, Edmund Hillary saw himself as a complete failure. As the applause died, he backed away from the microphone and walked to the edge of the platform.
He paused for a moment and turned to look at a picture of Mount Everest that hung in the background. He made a fist and pointed at the picture of the mountain. He said in a loud voice, “Mount Everest, you beat me the first time, but I’ll beat you the next time because you’ve grown all you are going to grow… but I’m still growing!”
He tried again in 1953. On May 29, 1953, he succeeded in reaching the summit of the highest mountain known to man. He was knighted for his efforts. Sir Edmund Hillary is now remembered as one of the greatest explorers of all time.
As a young man, Abraham Lincoln went to war a captain and returned a private. Afterwards, he was a failure as a businessman. As a lawyer in Springfield, he was too impractical and temperamental to be a success. He turned to politics and was defeated in his first try for the legislature, again defeated in his first attempt to be nominated for congress, defeated in his application to be commissioner of the General Land Office, defeated in the senatorial election of 1854, defeated in his efforts for the vice presidency in 1856, and defeated in the senatorial election of 1858. At about that time, he wrote in a letter to a friend, “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.”
Following his 1858 defeat, battling bouts of depression, self-doubt, and lack of confidence, Abraham Lincoln pulled himself together and ran for President of the United States. Despite having lost numerous elections, failing at business, military service, and the practice of law, Lincoln felt that he could win the election and provide the kind of leadership that the country needed at its most crucial hour.
On November 6, 1860, despite all odds, Abraham Lincoln was elected as the 16th President of the United States. He was also the very first Republican ever to be elected president. He received 180 of 303 possible electoral votes, and 40 percent of the popular vote. After leading the United States through the most divisive and turbulent war of its young history, on November 8, 1864, Abraham Lincoln was re-elected as President, defeating Democrat George B. McClellan. Lincoln received 212 of 233 electoral votes, and 55 percent of the popular vote. He is now remembered as one of our greatest presidents.
Norma Jean Baker, better known as Marilyn Monroe, experienced a disrupted, loveless childhood that included two years at an orphanage. When Norma Jean, born on June 1, 1926, in Los Angeles, California, was seven years old, her mother, Gladys (Monroe) Baker Mortenson, was hospitalized after being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, a severe mental condition. Norma was left in a series of foster homes and the Los Angeles Orphans’ Home Society. The constant move from one foster home to another resulted in Norma’s “sketchy” educational background.
After Norma’s sixteenth birthday, her foster parents had to move from California. To avoid an orphanage or a new foster home, Norma chose to get married. On June 19, 1942, Norma married James Dougherty, but the marriage would all but end when he joined the U.S. Merchant Marines in 1943. Though her difficult childhood and early failed marriage would make Norma Jean a strong and resilient woman, these experiences would also add to her insecurities and flaws—things that would ultimately shape her into a great tragic figure of the twentieth century.
During World War II (1939–45), a war fought between the Axis powers—Japan, Italy, and Germany—and the Allies—England, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States—, Norma Jean worked at the Radio Plane Company in Van Nuys, California; but she was soon discovered by photographers. She enrolled in a three-month modeling course, and in 1946, aware of her considerable charm and the potential that it had for a career in film, Norma obtained a divorce from Dougherty. She then headed for Hollywood, where Ben Lyon, head of casting at Twentieth Century Fox, arranged a screen test. On August 26, 1946, she signed a one hundred and twenty-five dollar per week, one-year contract with the studio. Ben Lyon was the one who suggested a new name for the young actress—Marilyn Monroe.
During Monroe’s first year at Fox, she did not appear in any films, and her contract was not renewed. She was dropped by her producers because they thought that she was unattractive and couldn’t act.
However, Marilyn Monroe did not give up and continued to pursue her dream. Her persistence paid off. In the spring of 1948, Columbia Pictures hired her for a small part in Ladies of the Chorus. In 1950, John Huston (1906–1987) cast her in Asphalt Jungle, a tiny part that landed her a role in All About Eve. She was now given a seven-year contract with Twentieth Century Fox, and appeared in The Fireball, Let’s Make It Legal, Love Nest, and As Young as You Feel.
In 1952, after an extensive publicity campaign, Monroe appeared in Don’t Bother to Knock, Full House, Clash by Night, We’re Not Married, Niagara, and Monkey Business. The magazine Photoplay termed her the “most promising actress,” and she was earning top dollars for Twentieth Century Fox.
Most people would have given up on the dream of becoming something more than just another pretty face when confronted with the hurdles thrown in Marilyn’s path. She held tight to her commitment to herself, and each failure only made her more determined to succeed in a field where failure was the norm. Norma Jean is now remembered as one of the greatest sex symbols of all time.
Joanne Rowling often felt insecure and shy at school, even though her grades were good. Writing stories became a passion that allowed her to be herself. These stories were full of humor, funny names and characters, and magic.
In the later school years, she began to read the biographies of the great people. She admired the author Jessica Mitford, and said that the book Hons and Rebel had changed her life.
According to Joanne, the worst memories of her teenage years were when her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Even though she did not fully realize at that time what it meant, it was painful for the girl to see her mother becoming slowly but steadily worse. Joanne ended her school training with high honors. She knew exactly what she wanted in her life, but had no idea where to begin.
Joanne never stopped writing; however, she never tried to submit any of her stories. She felt too insecure to take any step in the direction of her dreams.
Joanne went through a series of jobs, most of them secretarial. She found her jobs boring. The only consolation that she had was in writing. “Whatever job I had, I was always writing like crazy,” she admitted later.
She wrote many short stories, and abandoned several novels. However, her work ended up in another box with all other stories, and her self-esteem declined.
After having changed several employers, she found a job as an office worker for the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. She still found her work very boring, and spent her lunchtime at a nearby pub or cafe writing her stories.
Joan’s life suddenly took another turn when she was on the way to London, and her train stopped. It was some kind of mechanical problem, which required a delay of four hours. She was staring out the window, when the idea for Harry Potter appeared in her mind very clearly. “I suddenly had this basic idea of a boy who didn’t know what he was,” she described several years later.
She invested all her free time in writing the story, month after month, filling her files and boxes with ideas and stories. Joanne felt very happy in this world of her own; she did not even mention it to her sister nor to her parents.
At the age of forty-five, her mother died suddenly from multiple sclerosis. Joanne felt deeply the loss, mixed with a feeling of guilt and regret. Her deepest regret was that she never let her mother read her Harry Potter story.
Shortly thereafter, Joanne lost her job at the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. At that time, Harry was the only motivation that got her through.
In September 1990, Joanne decided that she would no longer look for office work. She accepted the offer of a job in Portugal, teaching English as a second language at school. For the first time, she was happy about her job, and her students were happy to be taught by her. She worked afternoons and evenings, and devoted her mornings to writing.
Her life changed when she met and fell in love with journalist Jorge Arantes. A few months later, they got married.
Joanne kept writing… Her book, which had started as a typical children’s book, had become more detailed, having acquired the depth suited for adult readers. In 1993, her daughter Jessica was born. However, the newly born child did not strengthen the couple’s relationship, which by then had become very stressful.
After the breakup with her husband, Joanne took a decision to return to the U.K. with her four-month-old baby Jessica.
She moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, to be near her sister Di. It was a hard time for a single mother. Due to the fact that she was not eligible for child care, Joanne was forced into unemployment and public assistance. Public assistance barely covered rent and food, and Joanne could not afford even a second-hand typewriter.
Nicolson Cafe had become her favorite place to write Harry Potter.
At what was probably the lowest period of her life, her daughter Jessica and her Harry Potter were the only inspirations. During this period, Joanne suffered from deep depression. She finally confessed to her sister about the story of Harry Potter, which Di found immediately thrilling and captivating. “It’s possible if she had not laughed, I would have set the whole thing to one side,” admitted Joanne, “but Di did laugh.” She persuaded Joanne to take a risk and send her book to publishers. Twelve publishers rejected the book before a small London publisher finally accepted it.
Even then, the editor of Bloomsbury (the publishing company), due to his doubt about the success of the book, advised Rowling to get a day job as it was unlikely that she would make money from it.
But Rowling’s belief in her work didn’t sway. The book was eventually published in 1997, with a print run of 1000, five hundred of which were distributed to libraries. The Harry Potter books are now one of the biggest selling series of novels in history. Joanne is now a billionaire and one of the most sought-after speakers of all time. She is, in my opinion, one of the greatest teachers in the world. Her story is indeed a testament to the power of failure, and not giving up before you embrace the happiness that you truly desire.
Chaos, despair, and disappointment are common pitfalls that everyone has to face in life. In reality, the challenge of life is not what matters most. How we choose to face the challenge is infinitely more important. Most people seek the approval of others before pushing forward with a dream. If we do not receive that approval, it is often easy to relegate success and happiness to the far corners of our minds, or let it go altogether.
When we are young, life seems to have no boundaries. Dreams are plentiful and, at times, anything seems possible. For many people, however, emotional setbacks, failures, or loss of a loved one signal the end of the period of dreaming. The focus then becomes survival and the avoidance of failure. This is not the way of happiness.
Happiness feeds on failure and is nurtured by the inevitable success that follows true persistence.
I would like to end this chapter with a rather poignant story that I found that illustrates this point.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the famous 19th-century poet and artist, was once approached by an elderly man. The old fellow had some sketches and drawings that he wanted Rossetti to look at and tell him if they were any good, or if they at least showed potential talent.
Rossetti looked them over carefully. After the first few, he knew that they were worthless, showing not the least sign of artistic talent. But Rossetti was a kind man, and he told the elderly man as gently as possible that the pictures were without much value and showed little talent. He was sorry, but he could not lie to the man. The visitor was disappointed, but seemed to expect Rossetti’s judgment.
He then apologized for taking up Rossetti’s time, but would he just look at a few more drawings, these done by a young art student. Rossetti looked over the second batch of sketches and immediately became enthusiastic over the talent that they revealed. “These,” he said, “oh, these are good. This young student has great talent. He should be given every help and encouragement in his career as an artist. He has a great future if he will work hard and stick to it.”
Rossetti could see that the old fellow was deeply moved. “Who is this fine young artist?” he asked. “Your son?” “No,” said the old man sadly. “It is me — 40 years ago. If only I had heard your praise then! For you see, I got discouraged and gave up — too.