Turning Lemons into Lemonade: 10 Inspirational Examples of Epic Failure and Resiliency

“Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.”
~ Confucius
Leadership development and failure go hand in hand. By its very nature, development involves trying new things, often in the form of “stretch assignments” in order to challenge yourself and learn new skills.
It’s inevitable that in the process of learning, you’re bound to fall down and skin your knee. One of the traits of all successful people is resiliency – the ability to fail, learn from that failure, and incorporate new skills into your leadership repertoire.

That’s easier said than done. When we screw up, we feel like a loser, and our confidence can take a hit. When that happens, it’s sometimes helpful to keep a few stories in mind of people that messed up way worse than most of us could ever dream of yet ended up smelling like a rose.

Here are ten of my favorites:

1. Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison’s teachers said he was “too stupid to learn anything.” He was fired from his first two jobs for being “non-productive.” As an inventor, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

2. Steve Jobs
We all know about Steve Job’s incredible impact on the world and his many successes. He also had his fair share of failures, including: The Apple III computer, the Lisa, the early Macintosh computers (John Sculley, the CEO Jobs brought to Apple, pushed him out over the Mac’s initially lackluster sales), Apple TV, the NeXT-like Apple G4 Cube, and Apple’s Pages word processor to name a few. At one time he was considered by many the laughing stock of Silicon Valley. Now, of course, he’s compared with Edison as one of the greatest innovators of all time.

3. Thomas Watson
One of my favorite leadership development stories the legendary story about Tom Watson Jr., who guided IBM in its glory days. According to the story, a vice president who had lost the corporation $10 million on an experiment that failed was called to Watson’s office. Fully expecting to be fired, the VP brought along his letter of resignation and presented it to Watson, who refused it with this statement: “Why would we want to lose you? We’ve just given you a $10 million education.”
Watson is also credited with saying, “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.”

4. Winston Churchill
Churchill failed sixth grade. He was subsequently defeated in every election for public office until he became Prime Minister at the age of 62. He later wrote, “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never, Never, Never, Never give up.”

5. Henry Ford
Ford failed and went broke five times before he succeeded.

6. Babe Ruth
Ruth is famous for his past home run record, but for decades he also held the record for strikeouts. He hit 714 home runs and struck out 1,330 times in his career. He said, “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”.

7. Walt Disney
Disney was fired by a newspaper editor because “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” He went bankrupt several times before he built Disneyland. In fact, the proposed park was rejected by the city of Anaheim on the grounds that it would only attract riffraff. His first animation company went bankrupt. Legend has it he was turned down 302 times before he got financing for creating Disney World.

8. Jack London
The writer received six hundred rejection slips before he sold his first story. A good example to keep authors, inventors, and job seekers encouraged.

9. Fred Astaire
After his first screen test, the memo from the testing director of MGM, dated 1933, read, “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” He kept that memo over the fire place in his Beverly Hills home.

10. J.K Rowling
Rowling spoke to the graduating class of Harvard in June 2008. She didn’t talk about success. She talked about failures. “You might never fail on the scale I did,” Rowling told that privileged audience. “But it is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.” She should know. The author didn’t magically become richer than the Queen of England overnight. Penniless, recently divorced, and raising a child on her own, she wrote the first Harry Potter book on an old manual typewriter.

And to round out the list, here are 5 more famous quotes on failure:

1. “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan

2. “I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how many times you failed,” Cuban says. “You only have to be right once. I tried to sell powdered milk. I was an idiot lots of times, and I learned from them all.” – Mark Cuban

3. “Only those who dare to fail greatly can achieve greatly.” – Robert F. Kennedy

4. “Flops are a part of life’s menu and I’ve never been a girl to miss out on any of the courses.” – Rosalind Russell

5. “There is something to be said for keeping at a thing, isn’t there?” – Frank Sinatra

What’s your favorite story or quote about failure and resiliency?