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The Value of Failure--and Danger of Success

You learn far more from your failures than from your successes.
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In a greatly underrated business book The Tao of Pooh, author Benjamin Hoff quoted a Chinese saying: "One disease, long life; no disease, short life." He goes on to explain that:

"Those who know what's wrong with them and take care of themselves accordingly will tend to live a lot longer than those who consider themselves perfectly happy and neglect their weakness."

I don't know if that's true for human health, but I know it's very true for businesses and businesspeople.

Let's start with businesses. Companies that enjoy years of success and growth--without at least a few years of serious financial trouble--almost always fall victim to their own strengths.

Microsoft is a case in point. As Steve Ballmer's retirement announcement illustrates, Microsoft has been constantly held back from developing new markets by a requirement to backfit everything to Windows.

That hesitancy to start anew at Microsoft makes perfect sense because Windows is by far the most successful software product in history. Why tamper with success?  Especially with success that's unprecedented in business history?

Unless a company is willing to undergo self-induced "creative destruction," it's almost inevitable that success will create cash cows that nobody (management, investors and customers alike) are prepared to sacrifice.

More: 10 Ways to Turn Failure Into Success

Even now, it's going to be very hard for a new CEO at Microsoft to get the company to stop thinking about Windows and start thinking about something new. Unfortunately for Microsoft, in business, strengths eventually become weaknesses.

It's very different though, inside companies that have been on the brink, of financial disaster.  It's easier to make a leap of faith when you've stared into the abyss.

For example, Apple's greatest success (the iPod/iTunes revolution) took place only after it became clear that the Macintosh/NeXT strategy wasn't creating growth but instead was dooming the company to insignificance.

The same thing is true of businesspeople.  The best entrepreneurs are those who've failed at least once, because they've learned what doesn't work as well as what does. As a general rule, people learn more from failures than from success.

More: 10 Reasons to Love Failure

Failure teaches you to identify your weaknesses and use them to your advantage.  For example, some of the most effective salespeople I've met are introverts who've learned to use their thoughtfulness to become better listeners.

Failure also teaches you to value your strengths but prevents you from letting those strengths make you muscle-bound.  For example, I know a woman who's almost frighteningly charismatic, but she knows how to tone it down to increase her credibility.

There's nothing wrong about success.  It's fun and wonderful and all those good things.  But it's dangerous, too, especially for those who have never had the great good luck of having at least one huge failure.

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IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Sep 3, 2013

GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist

Geoffrey James was recently named a "Top 40 Social Selling Marketing Master" by Forbes, and his blog has won awards from the Society of American Business Editors and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. His writing has appeared in publications as diverse as Wired, Brandweek, and Men's Health, and he is the author of numerous books, including The Tao of Programming, Business Wisdom of the Electronic Elite, and, most recently, Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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