You can tell a lot about a person’s character by the way they respond to a setback. I often comment in this blog on best practices and technical issues relating to internal audit. Today, I offer my thoughts on an issue of broader interest — perseverance. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve known over the years who have suffered a setback and never recovered. They just couldn’t get over that hurdle and get on with their professional or even personal lives.
In my career, I can recall at least three times when I dearly wanted a promotion or an 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 I chose to persevere, I ended up achieving much greater success down the road — opportunities I might have missed if I’d been blessed with what I was sure in my mind was a “big achievement.”
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 in flames 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 Steve Jobs’ greatest successes at Apple came only after he was forced out of the company he founded.
As for me, I was devastated when I did not even make the list of finalist candidates for the Deputy Controller in a large U.S. military command almost 20 years ago. I look back today in awe at how limiting such a “prestigious” career assignment would have been for me.
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 Disaster
And 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 never quit.
When we accept failure as our lot, then we shortchange ourselves. Do you have a story of perseverance? I’d love to read about it. Share it here.