“You will fall. And when you fall, the winner always gets up, and the loser stays down.” —Arnold Schwarzenegger
My first book, The 4-Hour Workweek, was rejected 27 times by publishers. It wasn’t supposed to work. It was supposed to fail. And for a while I did fail—repeatedly—to get it published. But eventually it did get published. It then went on to become a New York Times bestseller (where it stayed for four years) and get translated into dozens of languages. In fact, it just recently had its 10th anniversary.
So the topic of failure is particularly important to me. As I wrote in my last book, Tools of Titans:
The superheroes you have in your mind (idols, icons, elite athletes, billionaires, etc.) are nearly all walking flaws who’ve maximized one or two strengths. Humans are imperfect creatures. You don’t “succeed” because you have no weaknesses; you succeed because you find your unique strengths and focus on developing habits around them…Everyone is fighting a battle [and has fought battles] you know nothing about…Everyone struggles.
These conversations surrounding failure are extremely valuable because they show you there is more than one way to achieve your goals. After hundreds of conversations with the world’s top performers, you start to spot certain patterns. These are the shared habits, hacks, philosophies, and tools that are the common threads of success, happiness, health, and wealth. Behind each success story is usually a lesson on how to overcome failure.
I’ve gathered some of the best advice about coping with frustrations and roadblocks, and—ultimately—learning how to turn failure into success. The reason I ask so many people about failure is because, while it’s important to learn through experience from our own failures, we can often glean extremely valuable lessons about failure from other people’s experiences as well. In fact, the idea of asking top performing people about their “favorite failures” become an essential pillar of my new book, Tribe of Mentors.
I was fortunate to receive a wave of incredible feedback. In an interview with writer, director, and movie star Ben Stiller I asked him: How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours? Ben said,
I think the commercial and critical failure of The Cable Guy would be what I look back on as the most educational and spirit building. The making of it was a pure creative experience. We basically did what we wanted, and the power of Jim Carrey to take a chance with that movie afforded us that. So in making it, we felt fulfilled and excited. But when it came out, everyone hated it and no one went. It was pretty shocking, mainly because I never experienced such a high-profile project not doing well. It hurt, as failures always do, but I think the first time you go through something like that you don’t know how to emerge. And when you finally do, it gives you a perspective you could never have [otherwise]. In terms of how people react to art or entertainment, you learn that it sometimes goes well and it sometimes doesn’t. It doesn’t mean that the cause and effect are connected. In other words, you always do the best you can in the moment, and then it either connects or it doesn’t. Going forward, I was less innocent or maybe naive about that. Then, when I did something well received after that, it was always tempered by the knowledge that it didn’t mean that the project itself was better or worse. I think that was very helpful. Also, with movies, you learn that the true mark of “success” is whether people still connect years later. If the movie has a “life.” With Cable Guy, I have found it does, more so than other movies I made that were more “successful,” when people mention it to me, I find it even more fulfilling.
Ben Stiller’s story of failure is incredibly valuable, but it’s not a unique one. In fact, I learned that Hollywood is filled with stories of failure and adversity. In another interview with actor and former NFL Player Terry Crews he told me about an early failure of his that changed his life forever:
1986. It was my senior year in high school at Flint Academy in Flint, Michigan. I was the starting center for our class C basketball team. We had a great team that year, and we were expected to go very far, if not all the way, in the state playoffs. We faced Burton Atherton in the district final, and we were expected to trounce them, but they tried something we’d never seen before. They didn’t play. They would bring the ball down the court and just pass it back and forth at the top of the key. There was no shot clock, so they did this forever. The only time we scored was when we managed to steal the ball. But our coach, for some reason, decided we were going to let them do it. I remember standing there, with my hands raised in zone defense, watching them hold the ball without even attempting to shoot. I was frustrated, and every attempt I made to step out of the zone was rebuffed by our coach. This method was working for them, because with only five seconds left on the game clock, they were up 47-45.
One of their players made a mistake and tried a long pass cross court and I stole the ball. I desperately dribbled the entire length of the court…5, 4, 3, 2, 1…for our only chance to win. I missed. Their fans go crazy, as it was the biggest upset of the year, and I collapse in a heap, thinking my life is over. The coach afterward told the whole team that I had no business taking that shot and I should have passed it to our star player. It was in the paper the next day that I failed, and I was ridiculed by students and teachers alike. I was beyond crushed. A dark cloud covered me everywhere I went as I internalized the loss.
A few days later, as the fog of failure began to lift, I remember having a rare time alone in my room (I usually shared it with my brother). As I sat in the silence, another thought pierced through my sadness. “I took the shot.” It was invigorating, even exciting. “Hey, when all the chips were on the line, you didn’t leave your future up to others, YOU TOOK YOUR SHOT.” Instantly I felt free and in control. I knew from then on that I could have the courage to fail on my own terms. From that moment, I decided that if I was going to succeed or fail, it was going to be up to me. I was changed forever.
I asked Aisha Tyler about failing as well. Aisha is a brilliant actor, comedian, director, author, and activist. She’s is best known as a co-host of the Emmy Award–winning daytime show The Talk, the voice of Lana Kane in the hit series Archer, portraying Dr. Tara Lewis in Criminal Minds, and her recurring roles in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Talk Soup, and Friends. Even though she’s been wildly successful by an objective measure, she also titled her memoir Self-Inflicted Wounds: Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation, so she’s no stranger to sharing her failures publicly. Here’s what she had to say:
My first short film was a pretty uniform disaster. It was years ago. I had never spent meaningful time on a real single-camera set before, and while I was long on ambition, I was very short on experience. I got a lot of friends to chip in, both in front of and behind the camera, and while I was enthusiastic, I had no idea how to run a set. The result was a sprawling hodgepodge of images that never cut together properly into a cohesive narrative, and I was never able to complete the film. I wasn’t discouraged, though. What I realized was that I needed to learn more—about writing, production, preparation, planning, everything. I spent the next decade visiting every set I could, shadowing every director I knew, and several I didn’t know, to learn about the craft I was so deeply passionate about. And every short I’ve done since then has been an extraordinary experience. Several of my shorts won awards, all of it culminating in my first feature, which has also won awards. My first feature was the most galvanizing and fulfilling creative experience of my career so far, and it lit the path forward toward the next phase of my creative life.
There are no radical creative choices that do not carry with them an inherent risk of equally radical failure. You cannot do anything great without aggressively courting your own limits and the limits of your ideas. So many things I’ve done haven’t worked—but they led to me learning what did work, what not to repeat, and what to do better. So many times I thought, “If this doesn’t work, I’m going to be devastated.” But occasionally they didn’t work, and I got up the next day and kept creating. There is nothing more powerful than failure to reveal to you what you are truly capable of. Avoiding risk of failure means avoiding transcendent creative leaps forward. You can’t have one without the other.
It’s important to talk about failure and I thoroughly enjoyed my conversations with these giants of the entertainment world. But my conversations don’t end here. If you enjoyed hearing from these folks you should check out the dozens and dozens of additional responses I got from people when I asked them about failure, which I compiled in Tribe of Mentors.
Tim is the author of The 4-Hour Workweek, Tools of Titans, and his latest, Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.