The Beauty of Losing

When a team loses a game in any sport, that game can be studied. Every game is videotaped, and more time is spent studying video tape of loses than of wins. The attention is on what went wrong and what can be done better.

Likewise, the best opportunities to strengthen character often come from losses. We learn from our failures. Failure can be a big part of success. As parents, my wife and I never wanted our daughters to fail, but we did look forward to their failures. Sometimes what we learn in failure is the best education we can get. Many years ago, I owned a business that failed. It was a bump in the road that led to future successes. It may have been an expensive lesson, but not a complete failure.

One of the reasons we love the Henry Ford quote, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently,” is its context. Ford failed and learned, rising triumphantly. It’s also why I like the quote from J.K. Rowling: “Rock bottom became the solid foundation upon which I rebuilt my life.” As we are faced with interim failures in our innovation process, the narrative we construct is key. It’s not just that we learn a lesson, it’s about learning the right kind of lesson. Learning is the essential unit of progress for dreaming and striving for more.

Another benefit of losing is the ability to start again smarter and better than before. In 1914 a fire destroyed Thomas Edison’s manufacturing operations, but the sixty-seven-year-old rebuilt and used the opportunity to modernize his factory. Nature uses a forest fire as an opportunity to clear debris and create new growth from the ashes.

The entrepreneur motto of “Fail Fast” has been widely employed. It means businesses should undertake bold steps to determine the long-term viability of a product or strategy, rather than proceeding cautiously and investing years in a potentially doomed approach. The real aim is not to fail, but to be iterative. To succeed, we must be open to failure, but the intention is to ensure we are learning from our mistakes as we tweak, reset, and then redo if necessary. Mistakes are the predecessors to both innovation and success, so it is important to examine and evaluate mistakes. Let’s do everything in our power to be successful at everything we do. However, if we fail, we must take the action to learn from it.

Rick Newman points out in his book, Rebounders, the key to success is not a lack of failure but our response to it. According to Newman, “A whole body of scientific research has shown that overcoming setbacks can make people stronger, smarter, and more durable.” When Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, he said it was “awful tasting medicine, but the patient needed it” to grow and achieve future success with Pixar, not to mention Apple’s remarkable turnaround and string of iconic products.

Success by failure is not an oxymoron. Somewhere along the way, winning or losing often comes down to a poor decision, action, or even lack of action. When we make mistakes, it forces us to look back and determine where we went wrong. It allows us to formulate a revised and improved plan based on the evidence or data from those mistakes. By contrast, when we succeed, we don’t always know exactly what we did right that made us successful. In some cases, we may have just been lucky.

In my collection, I have two excellent quotes on the “beauty of losing” from two notable sources:

  • “Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest steppingstones to success.” – Dale Carnegie
  • “It is fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” – Bill Gates

During Spring football practice my Sophomore year in college, I had new DB Coach. At the very first practice he was discussing the aggressive style of play he wanted from us. While he pointed to the far corner of the field, he said we were going to get beat, “that’s why they build scoreboards.” He was making it clear that losing on an occasional play was part of the game, but by being confident and assertive we were going to be far more successful overall.

Consider success as a journey and not a destination. When people consider success a destination, if they fail, they give up. On the other hand, when we consider success a journey then failure is part of the journey, moving us forward. Roger Babson, an American entrepreneur, said: “Keep in mind that neither success nor failure is ever final.”

A better approach to facing setbacks and challenges today is to trust them to the God who plans to redeem them tomorrow. Not all our problems are our fault, remember the innocent sufferings of Job and even Jesus. It’s been said that God never wastes a hurt.

The Bible could be renamed “God’s Reclamation Projects.” In Genesis alone, Adam and Eve, the first humans, were also the first sinners; their firstborn son, Cain, became the first murderer; Noah’s drunkenness embarrassed his family; Abraham lied about his wife and had children with her maid; and Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery.

In Psalm 3:4-6, When David prayed, “But you, LORD, are a shield around me; my glory, you keep my head high. With my own voice I will call out to the LORD, and he will answer me from his holy mountain. I lie down and I fall asleep, I will wake up, for the LORD sustains me” he was running for his life. But he knew that the future is not defined by the present. The phrase, “Be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet” is a healthy mantra for most of us.

In closing, the greatest example of beauty in losing is found in the Christian “Conditions of Discipleship” cited in all four gospels: Luke (9:24), Mark (8:35), John (12:25) and Matthew (16:25 and 10:39); “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” The Christian life is a process of losing your ‘natural self’ entirely in Christ. This can be a lengthy, iterative journey with temporary failures where we can reconcile and learn.

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