To get on, you have to grin and bear it

Imagine yourself in a close race, maybe pitching your startup to a highly sought-after investor, or going after a coveted job opening.

Now envisage you could choose one of two possible outcomes: a narrow win — you just beat the closest competitor — or a near miss. Would you rather be the slight win or the near miss? Watch Chariots of Fire and see the reactions in each case.

The winner, of course. Everyone Loves a Winner

The traditional wisdom goes like this: if you have a chance to pick between winning and losing, you can’t go wrong by choosing to win.

Research, as well as my experience working with thousands of clients in numerous sectors, has shown that early-career success can bring recognition, reputation, money, all of which can help you secure future achievements.
But failure can also act as an indicator for future success. One mechanism by which this may occur is the “screening” effect: if early failure screens out those who are less likely to succeed, then those who can survive failure may have characteristics that make them more likely to succeed than those who have only experienced winning.

George Groves, a now-retired UK boxer, and, latterly, world champion, was, as fans like me often say, “knocked on his arse” a few times. Like a champion in waiting – or given that it’s boxing, like a mug, some would say – he kept coming back, and eventually won.

As he discovered, probably unconsciously (well, it is boxing after all!), failure can carry singular, valuable lessons. This view is reflected in Nietzsche’s classic phrase “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”. But is Nietzsche right? Can surviving a failure or setback ultimately lift you over those who beat you in the first place?

It would appear that some “failures” are able to overcome early setbacks, and outperform narrow winners in the long run. What leads to this performance difference?

A key characteristic of failure is that no one is immune to it. So no matter what your profession is and how much you excel at your job, it’s more than likely that at some point things won’t turn out the way we’d like. And when that happens, it highlights the importance of persistence and self-belief. As Groves discovered, that may not come easily, and required him to put in the time and effort to incorporate feedback and strengthen his approach.

While that message for near misses may be instinctive, it’s easy to overlook an equally important lesson for those appreciating the fruits of a narrow win. Resist the temptation to rest on your proverbial laurels, because some of those you edged out will likely be nipping at your heels and moving to overtake you before long. As in boxing as well as probably every other walk of life, there’s always someone younger, fresher, hungrier.
I remember watching an interview about the rock band Queen. Brian May noted that, sic, for 5 minutes we were the biggest band on the planet, but there’s always someone behind you.

There are caveats of course. The one that springs to mind is Jimmy White, the nearly-world champion snooker player. White was at his peak in the 1980s. He reached 6 World Championship finals but never won the event; the closest he came was in 1994 when he lost in a final frame decider against Stephen Hendry, who became the undisputed king of 1980’s snooker.

For those who persist, early failure should not be taken as a negative — but rather the opposite. So for innovators and managers, it’s important to keep in mind that winners misclassified as losers today could end up being the bigger winners tomorrow.

Does this mean individuals and organisations, should “seed” failure to drive future success? Not really. Failure can be a brutal experience. Many talented people, including those in any number of disciplines who have trained for years if not decades, may leave the field due to a single failure. Indeed, to flip Nietzsche’s statement, the critical precondition of becoming stronger is to not be killed in the first place.

And, of course, always proceed with caution. I can’t find anything empirical that categorically outlines the precise mechanisms that transform failure into long-term success: maybe grit, lessons learned, or some combination of those and others, I don’t know.

I very recently saw a documentary about Cristiano Ronaldo. Several things struck me. One was that it is part of a series called “Piers Morgan meets….” (if you’ve not heard of Piers Morgan, don’t worry; cut your nails instead). This particular show was called “Cristiano Ronaldo meets Piers Morgan”. As I said to my partner, if that doesn’t tell you he’s a success, what does. Evidently – I think – CR’s people said to PM’s people, either CR gets the headline, or you don’t get the interview.

The other thing was that CR said himself “talent is not enough”. He almost evangelised the importance of dedication, grit, work, and so on. He was not glib enough to deny his own talents, but hi explicitly acknowledged that talent, even in shovels like his, only gets you 95% of the way to the top – particularly at the ripe old age of 34!!

The bottom line here is that losing is not always bad, and some failures can become markers for future success.

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