Failure is a great teacher, but it is not the only teacher.
It is popular now to lionize failure. Both fictional stories (thematically) and nonfictional accounts (explicitly) praise failure as a stepladder to greatness. It makes sense. Failure is a great teacher. It teaches us what does not work. It teaches us what we need to do better, and what we need to work harder on. It teaches us what our limitations are, and prods us into further developing our strengths.
While this is, in some way, timeless wisdom, the overt emphasis on it in the business book, personal productivity, and self-help space is relatively new. Our idols in business—wildly successful, and sometimes unimaginably wealthy, people—now regularly explain that they arrived at whatever monumental success they are famous for only after navigating a bumpy road potholed with failures all along the way. They tell stories about companies they started that went under, or products they developed that never found a market, or ideas they had that did not work with as much or more pride and excitement as when they talk about what actually did work for them. They talk about failure almost like it is success. They prod us to consider failure as the best learning opportunity—something to embrace rather than fear.
Well, sure, if you can handle it. For most people, it is a privilege to be able to fail. You have to be able to weather the storm. Not everyone can. It takes resources, like money and the right friends. It takes mental wherewithal, like good mental health (or, in some cases, psychopathy) provides. It takes opportunity, which for normal people often comes down to luck. Not everyone has those things. Not everyone who falls down can pick herself back up again. Sometimes a door closes and another one does not open up.
When serial entrepreneurs, angel investors, or CEOs wax on about their failures, be wary. Their discussion of past failures may be instructional, but it is also a showy way to appear humble. It disguises the privilege one often needs to survive failure without economic, emotional, or reputational humiliation.
Money and connections help some people fail upward. Their unsuccessful companies don’t liquidate; they get bought by other companies. They don’t go bankrupt when a business venture fails, but their employees lose their jobs and their investors take a hit. These exits are not failures; they are minor successes—at least for the owner or entrepreneur. The road to their success is not paved with failure. It actually is paved with minor success after minor success.
So don’t believe it when sometime tells you that experiencing failure is the only way to learn how to succeed. That simply is not true. Failure is a great teacher, but it is not the only teacher.