Some of the Most Successful People in the World, on Failure

May 19, 2017

J.K. Rowling, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jack Ma, Steve Jobs and Barbara Corcoran all have talked about failure at length, and how you cannot fear it.

I’ll let you in on an unusual habit of mine.

I love watching inspirational speeches on YouTube. Love them. Just about every day, after lunch, I hit a lull. And nothing gets me out of it quicker than an inspirational speech from someone incredibly successful, on how they became what they became.

Hence, I’ve listened to a lot of inspirational speeches. Like, a lot of them. And, after awhile, you begin to notice some trends in them over time.

For example, almost all successful people across all fields talk about the importance of finding your passion and sticking to it (you’ve probably heard that before). And many talk about the importance of giving back and the good you can do in the world.

But one of the most interesting topics nearly every successful person talks about is failure. Time and time again, you hear the same message from highly successful people – to be the best version of yourself, you absolutely, positively can’t be afraid of failure.

In fact, many of them talk about how they failed early in life. And how appreciative they are of that, because it numbed them from failure later on.

You’d probably like some examples. So I grabbed YouTube videos of some of the world’s most successful people across a wide variety of spectrums, talking about the importance of failure in their life.

1. J.K. Rowling gave her best speech on failure.

J.K. Rowling – author of the insanely successful Harry Potter series – is a classic rags-to-riches story. In the early 1990s, she was living on welfare as a single mother; today, she would be a billionaire, if she didn’t keep giving so much money away.

In 2008, she was asked to give the commencement speech at Harvard University. Preparing for the speech, she “racked her mind and heart” on what to say. The topic she eventually settled upon?

Failure.

Rowling’s speech was all about how most of us are afraid of failure, and how that prevents us from trying what we really want to do. Herself, for example, wanted to be a writer, but didn’t because she thought she would fail.

Only after getting over that fear – largely because she ran out of other options – she started writing and the rest is history.

Rowling’s story is incredibly moving and powerful. But it was hardly a unique topic; after I listened to it I realized how many other highly successful people had a similar message.

2. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in another commencement speech, talked about failure as well.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is not without his critics, and rightfully so. But there’s no denying his success: he is regarded as the greatest body builder in history, he was one of the biggest movie stars in history and then went on to become the governor of most populous US state.

Not a bad resume.

In a commencement speech he gave at the University of Southern California when he was still governor, Schwarzenegger talked about his view of failure. He even highlighted some of his high-profile failures – namely, failed movies like Red Sonja and Last Action Hero – and how that never stopped him.

“Never, ever be afraid of failure,” Schwarzenegger said. “Ten times I tried to bench press 500 pounds and I failed. But the 11th time, I did it. So never give up and never be afraid of failure because otherwise you box yourself in and you limit yourself.”

3. Steve Jobs believes what holds people back most is a fear of rejection.

Steve Jobs needs no introduction, a man who revolutionized every business he touched. His advice?

Jobs said one of the biggest barriers that holds people back is they give up on their dreams before ever really pursuing them, because they are afraid of rejection.

“I’ve found something to be very true,” Jobs said. “Most people don’t get those experiences because they never ask. I never found someone who didn’t want to help me if I asked them for help.”

Jobs advocated for a much different approach.

“You got to act,” Jobs said. “You have to be willing to fail. You have to be willing to crash-and-burn… if you are afraid of failing, you won’t get very far.”

4. Shark Tank’s Barbara Corcoran did a whole TED talk on failure.

Barbara Corcoran, as you know if you’ve watched the opening promo of Shark Tank, turned a $1,000 loan into one of the biggest real estate businesses in New York City. And yet, when she was asked to do a TED talk in 2013, she talked about how she “got good at failure”, and how that builds a culture of innovation.

In the TED talk, she talked about how much failure she experienced as a poor student growing up in school, and how that numbed her to it. She told the story of how her husband and business partner leaving her for her secretary made her a more driven professional. She explained how 5 percent of all budgets at all her companies are designated as “mad money” to be spent on innovation, most of which would fail.

Most of all, she talked about what separated her best real estate agents from her worst ones. The difference?

“They took less time feeling sorry about themselves,” Corcoran said. “They almost had a lower IQ, so if you slapped them and hit them down they would pop back up and say, ‘I’m so stupid, hit me again’.”

In other words, the people who are the most successful are the people who are the best at failure, Corcoran said.

“I’ve learned to look at failure after everything I’ve done in life as a lucky charm,” Corcoran said. “As a head’s up, as a little bright light. Because, you know what, I have never had it where the flip side of it isn't the biggest opportunity.”

5. Jack Ma got rejected from KFC (among many other places), and it helped him tremendously.

In the early 1990s, Jack Ma, the man who founded Alibaba and is now worth upwards of $28 billion, applied to a job at a Chinese KFC, along with 23 other people.

The KFC hired 23 of the 24. The only person who wasn’t brought on?

Ma.

In fact, much of his youth was spent getting rejected. He was rejected from dozens of schools growing up. He was rejected from Harvard alone 10 times. He was rejected from becoming a police officer.

What did all that rejection do?

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Ma said he “still needed to get better” at failing. But, all that failure early in life made him more and more numb to the fear of failing, and allowed him to build the great business he has today, he said.

The takeaway

Here are just a handful of videos of some of the world’s most successful people talking about failure. There are countless others – the next speech you hear from somebody whose done something amazing, I’d be willing to bet that failure is mentioned.

Even in my own life, I reflect on the areas I’ve been successful, and the areas I haven’t been. The areas I’ve been successful are when I listened to the advice above and ignored several failures as I pushed toward success.

Conversely, the areas I haven’t been successful are areas where I was too afraid to even try, and merely accept the status quo. I’ve realized my true failures have little to do with talent, and everything to do with will.

So fail and fail proudly. As so many people have found, it just means you're one step closer to success.

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