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What is Failure Anyway?

Does it surprise you that only 400 cokes were sold the first year; Albert Einstein's Ph.D. dissertation was rejected; Henry Ford had two bankruptcies before his famous success; or Ulysses S. Grant was working as a handyman, written off as a failure, eight years before becoming President of the United States?

Rodin couldn't get into art school on three occasions yet became a great sculptor; Abraham Lincoln lost seven elections before winning the Presidency; Babe Ruth stuck out 1,330 times in route to hitting 714 home runs; and Oprah Winfrey publicly failed several diet attempts before becoming an inspiration for looking great after fifty.

Setbacks, disappoints, rejections and unsuccessful attempts were not failures to these people. They were steps to their success. That's the difference between people who are winning at working and people who aren't. How you deal with your setbacks (big or small) will determine your results. You see, failure is not the lack of success. Failure is staying down when you trip or stumble. It's giving up, checking out, or shutting down.

I wasn't a failure when I was fired from my first professional job, although for awhile I felt like one, and I could have been if I'd lost my confidence and given up on my career aspirations. I wasn't a failure when I was passed over for a coveted promotion I'd worked years for, but I could have been if I'd let that setback determine my future. And I wasn't a failure every time I pitched an idea that got turned down, but I could have been if I'd stopped pitching ideas.

You see, in twenty years in management, for every "yes" I've gotten in my career that's visible, there's least five "no's" that aren't. For every success I've achieved, there's at least as many misses. Yet when we look at other people's successes, we miss the struggles, frustrations and disappointments that came before them, so we think their success was easy.

How you view your disappointments, falls, and setbacks will impact your success. Do you see them as stepping stones or brick walls? People who are winning at working live Ralph Waldo Emerson's words, "Men succeed when they realize that their failures are the preparation for their victories."

People who are winning at working don't blame others for what's happened to them, and they don't use other people's definitions for success and failure. They use their own. They know it's not failing to miss their mark, change paths, re-assess goals, try something new or adjust direction. To them, failure happens when they stop trying to achieve their personal best.

(c) 2005 Nan S. Russell. All rights reserved.

Sign up to receive Nan's free biweekly eColumn at Nan Russell has spent over twenty years in management, most recently with QVC as a Vice President. She has held leadership positions in Human Resource Development, Communication, Marketing and line Management. Nan has a B.A. from Stanford University and M.A. from the University of Michigan. Currently working on her first book, Winning at Working: 10 Lessons Shared, Nan is a writer, columnist, small business owner, and instructor. Visit or contact Nan at

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