Success without failure?

Is it possible to succeed without failing?

Over a couple of beers, a mound of fried calamari, and a plate of pesto-soaked ravioli, three Fight Club pugilists debated this topic the other night. It stemmed from a preview of our latest bout topic- The Wisdom of Crowds- the idea that the collective intelligence of a group is often more accurate than most or all of its individual members.

In an effort to help his company innovate and better themselves, one pugilist started a Failure Forum in which members could share their failures. The idea being that we all learn from our mistakes and if they all could learn from each others’ mistakes, they would collectively be that much better prepared to move the company forward.

So, in order to be more successful, they would learn from their failures. But, does one necessarily need to fail in order to be successful? This is where the conversation turned…

As we left the restaurant and made our way to the theater to see 3:10 to Yuma (I’d give it 2.5/4, btw) , we debated this. We dizzyingly volleyed theories, claims, and spin, back and forth through the hallways until the darkness and decorum of the theater dictated our silence. However, as the previews wound down, my adversary felt the need to summarize his views (and get in the last word while he could) with a succinct statement:

Success without failure is luck.

I gave this a few minutes thought as the opening credits rolled. Soon, however, Crowe and Bale had swept me back in time and away from my reality. When I came around two hours later, I had completely forgotten about our discussion and went about the next couple days blissfully.

Then, last night, a cryptic email:

What do you think…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45mMioJ5szc

http://books.google.com/books?id=284xdq3x4ugC

What do I think?

Didn’t we come to realize that it doesn’t really matter what I think? Isn’t it more telling to know what we think? After all, that was the impetus for our conversation- the wisdom of crowds.

As such, I created a poll over at SeasonedGamers to find out a group’s view on whether or not failure was necessary for success . I kept the question as unbiased as I could, not giving any indication of my opinion- “Can you have success without failure?”. However, I needed to vote and I didn’t want my vote to show my preference, so I gave my adversary a head-start by submitting a ‘No’ vote.

As of this posting, and even despite my ‘No’ vote, “Yes- Success Exists Without Failure” is enjoying nearly a 2 to 1 advantage. Several respondents have also posted their views on why they chose what they did, and there are some wonderful insights mentioned there- be sure to review them, too.

So, while I could lay out my reasoning here as to why I think success can exist without failure, it is perhaps more telling, authentic and an incredible ironic twist that I can let the masses speak for me…

I feel obligated to clarify that my belief on this matter transcends the inherent relativity that exists between success and failure. Conceptually and definitively (as in, definition) the two require each other, like love and hate. I have to assume our promoted perspectives had accepted this as a certainty, and it’s my understanding that our discussion lies beyond this plane.

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11 Responses to “Success without failure?”


  1. 1 bobbyjones September 11, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    I like cheese too.

  2. 2 Dave K. September 11, 2007 at 2:55 pm

    OK, leaving the crowds out of it for awhile… what do I think about the two links you sent? I think they’re fascinating. But they do little to prove your point…

    If Jordan hadn’t failed so many times, does that necessarily mean he wouldn’t have succeeded? No. Indeed, he learned a lot from those failures- no one is disputing that. However, if he made his first-ever shot attempt and walked away, he would have been a success, too, without ever having failed.

    And, The Innovation Paradox simply explores degrees of success, not its nature as an absolute. Because, after all, success is relative. While there are examples of individuals and companies that have failed miserably only to turn it around and achieve success, there are also examples of those who hit it right out of the gate, e.g. Facebook. And, unfortunately for you, I only need to come up with one case to prove my point.

  3. 3 Matt H. September 12, 2007 at 8:57 pm

    Oh so simple one… Facebook only succeeded after Friendster “failed” to offer customers the flexibility to modify their pages sufficiently. Facebook was not true innovation it was an incremental improvement on MySpace that was an incremental improvement on Friendster. To my comment on luck, the jury is still out on Facebook… let’s see if they can sustain success or were they just lucky? I suppose that you are NOT lucky because you have “earned” everything and every opportunity that you have received?

    Perhaps you should go on with your “blissful” life and leave the heavy contemplation to the rest of us?

  4. 4 Dave K. September 13, 2007 at 6:35 am

    Well then, ‘simply’ put, I’ve already proven that leaving the ‘heavy contemplation’ about this topic to the masses results in a clear victory for my side, so be careful what you ask for… The ‘Yes, success exists without failure’ is sitting comfortably at 64%, nearly 2 to 1.

    As to Facebook… Now, apparently, it is also required to be truly innovative to be deemed a success? WTF?! And, you can’t blindly say that one company only succeeded simply because another failed, there is no way to prove that. Additionally, you can’t simply label it luck… maybe it was part of their strategy and had plans for Friendster to fail?

    And, if the jury is still out on Facebook, exactly how long now does one need to be successful to be considered a success? I wasn’t aware there was any sort of “success probationary period” but, apparently, it’s at least a year…

    I’m sorry, but you’re not really providing any concrete examples to support your case. And, you’re also throwing the ‘luck’ label on anything that doesn’t fit… a convenient crutch.

    BTW, maybe you want to heavily contemplate the value of name-calling…

  5. 5 Matt H. September 14, 2007 at 5:29 pm

    Ok… over a few beers, a coke, and a hot tea the battle ended, we cleaned our wounds and called a truce. We agreed that the definition of success is relative. Is the “simple” success of a one-hit-wonder the same as that of the multi-platinum artist? Or is the success of a start-up the same as that of a 70 year old company like HP? Matt agreed that by the simple definition of success – yes you can have a success without a failure. Dave agreed that there are varying degrees of success and that a one hit wonder “may” have simply succeeded by luck or chance. Some blood and bruised egos but we’re still standing and ready for the next skirmish. Perhaps on the Halo 3 battle field!

  6. 6 tbone24oz September 18, 2007 at 3:10 pm

    Since I am still spending considerable time preparing for interviews, I think a lot about this topic. Should I highlight my failures to present myself as a better candidate? I’m not sure that will be too affective. Personally, I value my failures and see them as great learning experiences. When asked at interviews I know how to spin every story as an invaluable asset. I spent the last 3 years starting a company that went bust, so there are always failures to talk about. Putting myself in the shoes of the hiring manager: would I prefer a candidate with a track record of success? Or perhaps some failures in the track record will be more valuable.
    Some thoughts I gathered:
    1. I prefer succeeding over failing.
    a. I don’t buy the glorification of failure….. and I have plenty.
    2. I would prefer a candidate that succeeded in every product launch over a candidate with even one failure.
    3. Dealing with failure is crucial – both on a personal and in the corporate level:
    a. Get back on your feet and move forward.
    b. Learn, learn, learn from every failure.
    4. Learn also from every success.
    5. It is actually best to learn from other’s failures and from your own successes.
    6. “Success without a failure” is just a matter of time perspective. If you continue long enough with a streak of success, a failure is inevitable. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work the other way around.

  7. 7 bobbyjones March 7, 2008 at 9:26 am

    Check out this fellow WordPress blog on failure:

    http://failblog.wordpress.com/2008/03/06/tactical-fail/

    Make pee not war!

  8. 8 Matt H. June 5, 2008 at 8:16 pm

    Ok… as a follow-up… fellow pugilist Mike B. and I went to see Daniel Pink at the U of MN a couple of nights ago. I really enjoyed Dan’s book A Whole New Mind and now he has a new one out… The Adventures of Johnny Bunko – The Last Career Guide You Will Ever Need. One of the themes from Johnny Bunko book is that we should all “make excellent mistakes” – which of course leads my mind back to one of my favorite words – Failure! Thinking back on my own life one of my BEST mistakes was failing my freshman Calculus and Physics courses… my stellar 1.2 GPA that Fall quarter lead to me leaving the Information Technology school in the Spring, making a brief stop at the College of Liberal Arts, and finally landing in the undergraduate business school (with significant hard work and determination). I loved computers because they could solve problems… but I could not love algorithms for algorithms sake. If it weren’t for that drastic veer in the road (aka mistake) I would be in a much different place.

  9. 9 Matt H. June 5, 2008 at 8:25 pm

    Here is a recap of Johnny Bunko for those interested…

    http://www.slideshare.net/garr/career-advice-08


  1. 1 Dark Data « Broken Spines Trackback on January 18, 2008 at 4:21 pm
  2. 2 Failure as a tool to understand who we are? « Broken Spines Trackback on June 11, 2008 at 2:38 pm

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