What you don’t see when you look at the synopsis of great people’s lives are the times they fell short. From the outside, it looks like they operated with invincibility, rising up at each pivotal moment. When the stakes were at their highest, there was no stumble.
But when you dig into the details, there’s no one who has actually achieved this. Top performers assume more risk than others. They’re on the frontier, operating at the edge of their current abilities. If anything, this means failure is even more prevalent.
Failing to rise to the occasion
The truth is, there will be moments when you fail to rise to the occasion. You’re not always going to make the right decisions or act exactly how you imagined. And since perfection is impossible, what matters most is the ability to bounce back.
Even Warren Buffett had moments when he failed to follow through early in his life. At the beginning of his career, Buffett was terrified of public speaking. And while you might imagine that someone like Buffett stepped up, put himself through deliberate practice, and overcame the fear in one fell swoop — reality was much different.
In a widely-told story, at the beginning of his career, Buffett enrolled in a Dale Carnegie speaking course to improve his skills. But few sources include the fact that he quit the first time around. He was afraid of being called upon to speak so he dropped out of the class. It was only the second time around that he built the courage to follow through. Now Buffett credits this as the best $100 investment he’s ever made.
The ability to bounce back
Anyone can lecture you about decisions you should make, habits you should build, systems you should create. But the most successful people aren’t flawless in their decision making. They just have a remarkable ability to bounce back.
The greatest artists, entrepreneurs, and scientists take the misfortune in stride, turning obstacles on their end and using them as an opportunity to improve their craft. They embrace mistakes and capitalize on them, ensuring they never happen again. And that’s the real difference in top performers — they stumble, but they rarely repeat mistakes.
Whether you’re struggling against your internal limits — uncertainty, doubt, fear — or you’re facing external challenges, you’re going to have bad days. What matters is the ability to reflect, learn, and find the courage to start fresh the next day.
Awareness can go a long way when it comes to navigating failure and being kinder to yourself. It’s okay to hold yourself to your own high expectations, but expecting perfection will often lead you over the edge. Life is as much about resourcefulness and how you respond to challenging situations as it is carefully plotting a long-term strategy. You need both.
Professionals know this space well and embrace mistakes as learning cues. They learn from them, but they don’t obsess over them. Amateurs expect perfection and crumble when they fail to meet their own lofty expectations.
Failure is about reach
The goal is never failure itself. It’s the expansion of your reach and the rate of personal growth. That means pursuing opportunities where failure is a potential outcome. Not limiting yourself to situations where success and participation trophies are guaranteed outcomes.
If you’re willing to risk failure, you’ll take more chances and reach further beyond your current ability level. And this is the fastest way to learn and create more opportunities for accelerated growth. Take calculated risks.
There will be times that you surprise yourself. But there will also be times you fail to rise to the occasion. In those moments, what matters is your resilience and resourcefulness. The lean product mindset applies as well here as anywhere else. Build, measure, learn. Repeat.