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ATD Blog

How Perception of Failure Affects Success

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Anyone can make mistakes or fail sometimes. The history of mankind is often based on misguided perceptions, unknown perspectives, and wrong assumptions. Think about it:

  • There was a time in business when most people believed you would never find a job if you failed at school.
  • There was a time in movies, literature, and science fiction when the hero would only have one flaw. It would make them vulnerable, human-like. They would have been perfect without this one bad thing.
  • There was a time in life when the brightest minds on the planet strongly believed the Earth was flat. And they believed it so hard they were ready to kill for that idea, which was wrong.

Successful people go through negative experiences and have wrong perceptions too. But they take advantage of what happens to them—the unfortunate events and the bad stuff—and use what they learn to innovate and build their success. Let me give you a few examples:

  • Think about Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Brand. In the early 1970s, the man was selling cut-price records by mail order. Imagine his reaction when one of the biggest national postal strikes happened in the UK. Most businesses could’ve fallen overnight, right? Not Sir Branson’s: the British entrepreneur went on and looked up for a store to open. And so, the story about the whole Virgin Megastores began.
  • Remember Steve Jobs, fired from the company he started, Apple, when he was 30. Many people said the man started a 12-year walk in the desert. Steve Jobs explained he started one of the most creative parts of his life—creating Pixar, the worldwide animation movie studio. And he found NeXT, a computer company Apple bought 12 years later. Jobs returned to Apple with the success we all know he had until he passed away.

These people share one thing: They are the main character in their own stories. This is the definition of a hero. They all get up to change the world, their own world, and to go beyond their failures to succeed. How do they do that?

Two Kinds of Perceptions About Failure

Before moving into business, I studied criminology for about five years. I learned to observe a person’s attitude within a group and understand the motives that lead somebody to step out of line. Criminology focuses on the bad reasons and the bad people who cross limits.

In business, I focused not on the bad stuff but on the good reasons, the great purpose, and the top-notch results people can achieve. What I understood is that, in both cases, either bad or good, the frameworks, patterns, and processes are almost the same. And I realized over the years that it is almost the same with the perception of failure. It can lead you to believe terrible things about yourself and others, or it can lead you to excel and reach great success.


Let’s start with people who think failure is bad.

  • For them, failure is absolute. It’s a general tendency in their behavior. If they “suck” at something, they will likely believe they will suck at everything. It’s the “I’m a loser” kind of thought.
  • Failure makes them feel lame about themselves. They are ashamed about it but convinced they can’t do anything great.
  • Failure for them is universal. Not to stand alone in their misery, they tend to perceive the whole world as bad and in agony. It is filled with bad people and only the smartest or strongest will survive.
  • In this mindset, failure is relentless. It’s inevitable and inescapable, and it will happen to anyone (especially them).
  • Therefore, failure is something you can’t learn from. You can’t grow from it. It becomes irrelevant. It is just something you should hide from and hide in your resume.
  • This whole belief leads them to fear. They try to avoid failure at any cost, even at the cost of not living the great adventure of life.
  • Failure is their ultimate excuse. Failure is their reason for not trying. They would rather not know what they could achieve than try and dare to fail.

Successful people also must deal with failure. But they see things differently. Failure for them is part of the trip.

  • To them, failure is relative. It regards a particular thing at a particular time. It does not imply they are entirely bad persons. As Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho says: “Nothing is completely wrong. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.”
  • Failure is also intimate. It concerns them and them only. They don’t try to blame others for their own mistakes. They don’t deny their failure, responsibility, or fear. They use it and go beyond it to succeed.
  • Failure, that way, becomes adjustable. It means that if they screw up once, it won’t necessarily be the case on their next move. And so, they can use today’s failure to build tomorrow’s success.
  • Failure is a very powerful learning tool. Harvard Professor Tal Ben-Shahar says, “If you don’t learn to fail, you fail to learn.” A child learns to walk by falling down first and then getting up. Like in the movie The Matrix, when Neo fails his first attempt to jump between the two buildings: “Everybody falls the first time.”
  • For the successful ones, failure is useful. They use it as a habit. They tame it and use it as a stepping stone in their course of success. It is a badge of experience.
  • If you think about it, it all comes down to evolution. Evolution tells us that adaptation is necessary. As human beings, if we were unable to adapt to changes, we would be extinct by now. Adaptation requires the ability to take advantage of opportunities and deal with failures.
  • Failure for successful people is fuel. It’s the energy they feel when they know they are on their way. It’s the power that excites them when they do things that count. It’s the passion they experience when they know they are on their way.

How can we go from seeing failure as a negative force to a positive one? Here are three ways to do just that:


1. Raise our own standards. We must look up and put high expectations on ourselves. No great long-lasting success came easily.

2. Rethink our perception of failure. Failures are not absolute but relative—not permanent but temporary. They are not opposed to success but are entirely part of it.

3. Care about resources. Where can we find the energy to perform this profound change? I think the answer might be in the question.

I truly believe we can all be the main character of our own story. James Hetfield, lead singer of the band Metallica, once said: “Dream big and dare to fail.” And that’s what I wish for all of us, because that way, the real question about failure is no longer: “Will I fail?” versus “Will I succeed?” The real question becomes: “What can I do, and how can I hold on long enough to use whatever happened to me in my life as a contribution to my success?”

For a deeper dive, join me May 21, 2023 at the ATD International Conference & EXPO for the session: Change Perception of Failure for Your Learners to Perform Better.

About the Author

Trained as a criminologist, Fred Colantonio left the Belgian public administration in 2006 to start a strategy and advising agency. Since 2009, as a professional speaker, Fred has delivered +950 conferences in 14 countries on 3 continents. Since 2010, Fred has published 9 books, 4 of which are bestsellers and 3 of which have been published in both Europe and Quebec.

1 Comment
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Yes! This is so good! I appreciate your experienced in criminology and how you have applied it to understanding how a person handles the inevitable obstacles in life. Human evolution is linked to our ability to learn and our awareness of the tendencies and habits that hold us back. Thank you for sharing these valuable insights.
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