Failures are the pillars of success: Quitting is the opposite. Or is it?

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase: “failures are the pillars of success.” It’s one you hear often. Along with “You can’t succeed unless you fail,” or “failures are key to success.” Sayings like these are also linked to not quitting. We’re always told that you can’t get anywhere unless you’re tenacious and never give up.

We’re taught the wonderful example of JK Rowling and how she was unemployed and broke and didn’t give up on her dream. She punted Harry Potter to 12 major publishers who all rejected her before she finally approached the 13th, who decided to publish it. In other words, she failed again and again.

Were those failures pillars to her success? According to JK Rowling: “Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way”.

But what if the book had sucked?

Luckily for JK Rowling, she didn’t just believe in herself. She also had talent. We’ll circle back to this.

Failures are the pillars of success in product testing

In many fields, from IT to product testing, failure is the only way to figure out what success looks like. Failure is a means of testing prototypes. Without failure how can you know what doesn’t work? To research, build, and test products costs millions in capital. Fail early, fail often is probably one of the most common phrases in product testing because you need to fail in the earliest stages of development in order to improve before moving to the next stage.

You only advance the best options with the highest rates of success. Results don’t come from your first try. Though the Oxford dictionary defines failure as ‘lack of success”, which we see as bad, it’s not a personal failing to test out new things and then decide which one offers you the highest chance of success. That’s pretty much the basis of entrepreneurship.

Every successful person out there knows that failures are the pillars of success, but…

What about quitting? I am awed by professional athletes, especially Olympic or competitive athletes who’ve reached the highest level. Their skill is a mixture of raw talent and dedication. I can’t help thinking, maybe if I’d worked harder at tennis, (insert sport of choice) I too could have joined their ranks (happily forgetting my general lack of coordination and muscle weakness). These athletes embody the greatest cliches about failure and quitting: “Quitters never win and winners never quit.”

Well, it’s a good thing I quit tennis, because let’s face it, with my weak serve and even weaker return, there was no way I was going to reach any kind of lofty height of athletic prowess. Nor did I enjoy it that much (not even close to how much I enjoy roller derby).

Throughout our lives, we’re bombarded with these two contradictory messages, never fail, it’s bad. Failure means you’re a loser or someone who you can’t rely on because you won’t learn to be tough and resilient. To fail and quit is dangerous because quitting becomes a habit. How will you ever get better, tougher, braver?

But successful people don’t just fail all the time. They also quit all the time, according to one of my favourite writers, Seth Godin. “They just quit the right stuff at the right time.”

Quitting can actually make you a happier, more successful person

This sounds like a statement written for the hedonist in our current age of instant gratification. Quitting can’t come at the cost of developing real skills and tenacity.  The trick is knowing when it’s the right time to walk away. And when it isn’t. I read an article recently where the author spoke of quitting as “disengaging from goals.”  I love this! We should continuously disengage from goals if they don’t serve us (tennis pun intended).

Moving from a difficult goal, to another, more attainable one, can create greater wellbeing, both mentally and psychically. Entrepreneurs, frequently abandon ventures in favour of more attainable, likely to succeed ones. What are they doing that we’re not?

Two professors studied 9o teenagers for a year and published their findings in the Journal of Psychological Science. They found that teens who could not give up on difficult, hard-to-attain goals had increased levels of inflammatory molecule C-reactive protein (CRP). This is linked to health issues like diabetes, heart disease and even early ageing.

Clearly, quitting can actually be good for you.

Isaac Newton could have been a farmer

Another great example of quitting comes from Isaac Newton. We all know him for his discovery of the law of gravity, but when he was a young boy, he left school to manage the family farm.

Soon enough, his family realised he didn’t exactly have a talent for farming, so he went to study at Trinity College, where he discovered gravity. Imagine he’d pushed through and became a farmer. Would he have excelled eventually? Doubtful.

Certainly, the world would have missed out on his far more impactful scientific contributions. If the direction we take isn’t best suited to our ability, we also need to look for another goal that emphasises our strength.

Luckily for JK Rowling she had the talent to succeed as writer.  But how many writers don’t ever get published? We love to find success stories of the plucky entrepreneur who made it despite the odds, but we also need to look at the ones who didn’t. Because, maybe, they should have pursued something else.

I think we all have the ability to succeed in something, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we all need to see fame or wealth as a measure of success. You set the goal, you decide if it’s attainable.

Repeated failure isn’t going to make you successful.  Failure is there to teach you things, like knowing when it’s time to persevere, and when it’s time to move on. To know when to quit, you need to know your limits and what you’re good at. You need to thoroughly understand your own abilities, resources, and mindset. Chasing rainbows really isn’t a sign of your inner strength and perseverance. It’s a sign that you’re ignoring reality – and worse, impacting your health and wellbeing.

It often takes more courage to leave than to stay. Failures are the pillars of success – yes, true. But not always in the way you think. As WC Fields puts it:  “If, at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”

To win, sometimes you just need to find a new game to play.

So how do you know when to quit?

BFB Success formula: 4 signs it’s time to quit (aka disengage from  your goals)

  1. Whatever you’re doing brings you no joy (whether it’s your work, a hobby, or a relationship).
  2. You have no passion for something that takes up a lot of your time. It doesn’t excite you and getting through it feels like an unbearable chore.
  3. Your life partner, business partner, or friendship has fundamentally different values and/or this relationship has turned toxic.
  4. You are constantly immersed in non-constructive things – and you need to quit some in order to spend time on more important stuff (check out the article on how to get rid of stuff on your to-do list).

Take stock of where you are and where you want to be. What are the things you can quit today to win at life?

If you liked our take on “failures are the pillars of success,” feel free to leave us a comment below, and please go ahead and share it.

Lastly, remember to join the blue-foot flock! We’re always looking for thinkers, questioners, and quitters like you to be part of our little clan.



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