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Why Failure’s a Better Teacher Than Success

(This essay first appeared in a different form in the August 2003 edition of Japan Entrepreneur Report)

Our business in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits. Robert Louis Stevenson

jack_ma.jpgJack Ma knows a thing or two about failure. After flunking two university entrance exams, he was accepted by his “city’s worst university.” Following graduation, he was earning $15 a month teaching English in mainland China.

But just a few short years later, he was running Alibaba.com, China’s most successful business-to-business e-commerce portal, and guest lecturing at the Harvard Business School (many of the professors there were baffled by his views). Now Alibaba.com is a listed firm valued at U.S. $26 billion. Here’s Jack’s take on failure:

The lessons learned from success stories only apply under certain conditions. But examples of failure teach us all something … I call Alibaba.com ‘1,001 mistakes’ …

What Jack says hits home with me, because I’m a rather accomplished gaffer myself, with an impressive record of small business busts. I’ve stumbled through a series of entrepreneurial ventures over the years: forming bands and making records, writing and producing publications, assembling retail products, and so forth. Most of these efforts were washouts in terms of businesses. Some were naïve, a couple embarrassingly so. But as the years passed and my experience grew, the efforts became less naïve and more practical (the pros say it takes four bad investments to make a real venture capitalist—maybe entrepreneurs need four flops, too).

After at least four clinkers, when I was finally able to identify my core skills and align my entrepreneurial efforts with them, the next venture evolved into something that was eventually valued highly by a third party.university_of_hard_knocks_cover1.jpg

So I say it’s time failure got some respect. One of my favorite self-help books, all about failure, is The University of Hard Knocks (also freely available at the Gutenberg Project). Ralph Parlette, the author, was a popular lecturer with a humorous, self-deprecating style who extolled the wisdom learned through “hard knocks” experiences of flopping. It’s hilarious reading underpinned by hard-hitting truths.

Here’s the takeaway: Keep trying. The most common precursor of success is a string of failures, each teaching an unforgettable lesson. But experience accrues to those who try, and failures eventually teach us how to succeed. Here’s how Shakespeare put it:

Our doubts are traitors

And make us lose the good we oft might win

By fearing to attempt

You may also enjoy:

You’ve Got to Jump

You Don’t Need to Be an Insider

What’s the Big Idea?

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