You can tell a lot about the content of a person’s character by the way they respond to a defeat rather than by how they celebrate a victory. I often comment in this blog on best practices and technical issues relating to internal audit. However, in 2013, I began sharing my thoughts on an issue of broader interest: perseverance in the face of adversity.
I can’t tell you how many people I’ve known over the years who suffered a professional setback and never recovered. They just couldn’t get over that hurdle and get on with their professional or even personal lives. I can recall at least three times in my career when I had my heart set on a promotion or assignment, and didn’t get it. Each time, failure presented me with a choice: I could press on and thrive, keeping an eye out for future opportunities, or I could quit — literally or figuratively — and let failure define me.
For me, there was really no choice. I can tell you that, every time I failed to get what I wanted but chose to persevere, I ended up achieving much greater success than I could have ever imagined — opportunities I might have missed if I’d been blessed with what I was sure in my mind had been a “big opportunity.”
But don’t take my word for it. History is full of similar examples:
Growing up, Milton Hershey thought he wanted to be a printer. I can’t help but wonder what we’d be making s’mores with today, if he hadn’t been fired and signed on as an apprentice candy maker.
Walt Disney’s dream of becoming an ace reporter got shot down when an editor at the Kansas City Star fired him for a “lack of creativity.”
Thomas Edison’s teachers told his parents he was stupid.
And recent news that Apple has become the world’s first trillion-dollar company couldn’t help but remind us that Steve Jobs’ greatest successes at Apple came only after he was forced out of the company he founded and then returned.
I am certainly not in the same company with these iconic figures, but like almost every professional, I have hit a few potholes along the road to success. I was very disappointed in 2004 when I wasn’t selected as The IIA’s CEO. I had been one of the organization’s executives for almost three years, and I loved The IIA. But I saw the board’s decision as a sign that I needed to broaden my horizons. So, at 50 years old, I left The IIA, picked up a backpack, and went to work for a Big Four accounting firm for the first time.
Three years later, I was PwC’s National Practice Leader for Internal Audit Advisory Services and, five years later, I was (you guessed it) The IIA’s CEO.
All of that to say, never be sure what is right for you and never give up — even when you fail to achieve a goal.
I’m not suggesting that failure guarantees future success. You should always examine the reasons you didn’t succeed and seek to grow and improve. Learning is one of the greatest gifts of failure. I’m just urging you not to let failure define you. I would say the same of success. Both are merely mile markers on your personal journey. Neither is a destination.
Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book and Gunga Din, addressed the similarities of despair and complacency, and the importance of not putting too much stock in either, in his poem “If.” He wrote:If you can dream — and not make dreams your master; If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with Triumph and DisasterAnd treat those two impostors just the same.
Kipling had to overcome some adversity of his own when he was forced as a child to leave his beloved home in India for boarding school in London. Life and careers really are journeys. Speaking with the hindsight of more than 40 years in the workforce, I’ve probably questioned every career move at some point, but I don’t regret any of them today.
Take adversity as it comes. You will always learn more in life’s valleys than on its lofty peaks. And that is particularly true when it comes to your career. So, never quit.
When we accept failure as our lot, then we shortchange ourselves.
Do you have a story of perseverance? I’d love to hear about it. Please share your experience here.