Success = Failure + Hard Work

In February, Denzel Washington gave an inspiring speech at the NAACP Image Awards. He gave nods to people like Taraji P. Henson and Barry Jenkins, people who exemplify what happens when you have to face considerable challenges, yet never give up on your dreams and put in the work. This ended up being the crux of his speech, where he focused on resilience and persistence as the key to making an impact. (“making an impact’ on oneself and on others, being an acceptable definition of success, in my humble opinion.)

During his speech, Washington said “Ease is a greater threat to progress than hardship.” This sentence stuck with me as profoundly true and very powerful a concept to keep in mind all your life. He was speaking in the context of diversity in acting, where I understand being an actor of ethnical origin forces one to work harder, having to be even more talented, having to fail more, having to get up again more… Obviously, this adage applies to many areas, way beyond cultural legacy. Struggle and failure give opportunities for progress in arts, industries, companies, politics, and most importantly, within oneself.

Anna Wintour has repeatedly said that getting fired from a job was one of the best things that ever happened to her. In fact, many luminaries and people who go on to create something new agree with her idea that “failure” is good not only for a career path, but also for one’s soul. Similarly, it is well known that in science, some ground-breaking discoveries were the direct result of what first looked like a complete “failure” (petri dish forgotten in a corner, anyone?). If one’s career path only progresses in a seamless, linear manner, and as planned, very little is learned outside of the curriculum one has set for oneself, no surprise happens, the horizon becomes smaller and smaller as an individual grows, because it’s the one he initially set, when he knew less.

When Denzel Washington says that ease threatens progress more than hardship, Washington is saying that without challenges, we would grow at a very slow pace. I would even build on this thought to say that without challenge, we would grow at a pace so slow it would threaten our intellectual advancement and our future as a species. If there was not a dearth of black actors and screenwriters in Hollywood, would Moonlight, in all its brilliance and artistry, have been made? If she had not been fired from Harper’s Bazaar, would Wintour ever have led Vogue to the top? Had he been born with “a silver spoon in his mouth” would Hussein Boldt have had the drive to reach for the stars and break records? Adversity spurs innovation, efficiency, resourcefulness and drive like no other situation, because when there is a need, those who are resilient and brave (good news: That’s most of us in a time of need!) rise to the challenge and accomplish much more than they could have ever imagined.

With political, environmental, and global issues impacting lives everyday, we have opportunities to reshape professional fields and entire industries, and this will entail a lot of falling, and a lot of getting back up and dusting our scraped knees. I am not denying the stressful and at times disorienting or unjust nature of professional or career hardship. I am simply saying that these moments are actually the ones that force us to grow out of an old and obsolete skin.

Where am I going with this?

  1. I would recommend that, when talking to a potential new employer, you ask how they deal with failure in the company and to give you concrete examples of failure not being penalised or even being rewarded, as long as it’s followed by recorded and shared new learning and progress.
  2. As a leader and as a manager, recurrently ask yourself if you’re not too failure-proof in your approach, and how to define and communicate clearly about the room your team has to fail and learn.
  3. Talking about failure inevitably brings the topic of giving up. Many would say that failing is not a failure, giving up is the real failure. Yes, yes, yes, this is true. You give up too soon, you learn nothing. However, I would say a word of caution against this as changing your mind is an important option and valuable freedom. If you fail many times, you’re also free to decide, without shame, that something’s not for you, that you’re not enjoying it enough to become good at it, that you want to try something different. There’s a reason why resilience and stubbornness are two different words. Maybe you wanted to be a lawyer, age 16 before you even knew what lawyers actually do, and it no longer floats your boat age 22 when you’re reading law at university.
  4. When interviewing candidates, ask them about their most epic failures in life (personal or professional) and what happened afterwards, in order to see if they build on these failures… At a recent investor/-start up event, I heard a very wise piece of advice from an investor. He said that he only ever invests in startups whose founders have previously failed, because he has proof they know how to fall and how to get up again.

So next time you fail, remember that if you learn something or better hone your craft, you have actually just succeeded.

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” — Robert F. Kennedy