Is Failing Forward The Real Key To Success?

Posted on Posted in Church Leadership, Personality, Who's Killing Your Church

As they stagger around the ring at the end of the 15th and final round of the fight scene in the first Rocky movie (1976), bodies glistening in sweat, blood, and bruises, physically beyond exhausted, grasping on to each other so as not to fall, Apollo Creed blurts out as if to comfort himself, “Ain’t gunna be no rematch. Ain’t gunna be no rematch,” to which Rocky responds, “Don’t want one!” They both achieved their goal. Apollo’s goal was to win—Rocky’s was to go the distance.

As we know, Apollo is the winner of that fight in Rocky 1 by decision (not by knockout), but by Rocky’s perseverance (and good script writing!), Apollo goes on to lose the heavyweight title to Rocky in the next movie, and finally becomes Rocky’s trainer in Rocky 3. Yea, it’s just a movie—but it also serves the purpose of a good analogy because I think it is backed up by reality, statistics, and a correct worldview.

As you may or may not know, I have been teaching leadership with the John Maxwell Team for the past seven years. John has been voted the #1 leadership expert in the world for many years (eight or more I believe) by the American Management Association, Inc. Magazine, plus many others. As well, he started his career as a pastor. If you are serious about learning to lead, you have probably read one of his books (if not, I have a list of some of them I recommend and/or teach after this article).

What you may not know is that he wrote two books on the concept of failing forward (out of the over 90 books he has written selling over 50 million copies). The first is literally titled, Failing Forward and the second is an updated and expanded version of that called, Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn. I have trained many on the concept of failing forward. Plus, I personally have both failed forward and backward. There is a methodology—a system—for failing forward.

In everything I teach there is one main element to success in anything—perseverance (persistence). And I’m not just talking financial things, but all of the most important areas in life—spiritual, family, career, intellectual, physical, social—and yes, financial—the Seven Spheres of Life. For most people, the real struggle is figuring out how to get to perseverance.

Calvin Coolidge noted, “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence (perseverance). Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” Profound, indeed. It’s not gifting, smarts, or knowledge—it’s the continuing application of those things. The persistence. Tenacity. Grow your talent. Apply your genius. Use your education. Too many people stop looking for a career once they find a job…

Biblically, James 1:12 has a similar concept, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial [persistence?], for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” (see also 1 Corinthians 9:24)

The Reformation Study Bible Commentary says, “Trials can be considered pure joy only when there is knowledge that they are designed by God for a purpose. They are tests of faith given in order to develop perseverance—and in turn, perseverance produces mature Christian character.” (Notes from James 1:2–4, a related passage.) This doesn’t mean God is going to make you successful, but it does show a similar principle—the hard things in life develop perseverance in us.

Isn’t that what failing forward does? We learn from our mistakes (hopefully)? We keep going forward instead of letting the situation get us down so we give up. The older I get, the more I want to press on to the prize that waits—I hate letting failure get me down. When failure comes—and it will if you are trying to accomplish anything—put the Rule of 24 into place: when success comes, celebrate! Especially if you have a team. One of the laws of leadership is helping your team find ways to win (Law of Victory). But only celebrate for 24 hours—then get back to work. No one ever stays on top by partying. Likewise, when you fail, take the time to grieve. But only do this for 24 hours! Don’t stay down for more than that or you’ll find a year, decade, or lifetime went by because you didn’t get up from that failure. Recount why you failed and ask yourself what you need to do immediately and specifically to ensure you don’t fail in that way again—write it down for the future. Memorize it.  Then get right back to work. No one ever gets back in the game by wallowing in failure.

Failure is going to come! Unless you’re not doing anything. Einstein said, “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” You may think you’re protecting yourself from failure by not trying anything new or not taking risk—but that in itself is a bigger type of failure. I truly believe it is better to have loved and lost, than not to have loved at all.

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for. ~Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper

We are made to step out and take a chance. Calamity may strike once you leave the shore, but remember, most accidents take place within 20 miles of home—because that’s where you spend most of your life!

We are born for adversity. We are made for years. Scripture is very clear that if we follow Christ, we will suffer. Not maybe, not possibly, not perhaps, weather permitting. The Christian worldview is one where suffering leads to perseverance! “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance (or perseverance).” Romans 5:3

But only when we endure—when we fail forward. If we suffer and give up, what have we gained?

Here are the main ways that lead to failure—

  1. Poor People Skills (Task oriented people are by definition not people oriented). Understand personality. Study!
  2. A Negative Attitude. Ask your friends and family. Change your attitude. Now. Right now.
  3. A Bad Fit. Three things have to fit to do well—can you do the job, will you love the job, and can you tolerate working with the leadership. Same three questions the people leading you want to know about you!
  4. Lack of Focus. This is killer if you are a high Inspiring (I) type. You must build a system to focus. And get accountability to help you achieve. Focus is possibly your greatest weakness.
  5. Weak Commitment. You lack character and integrity. Learn the Law of the Rubberband.
  6. Unwillingness to change. Status quo is your first love. Supportive (S) personalities live here. Make needed changes!
  7. Shortcut Mind-Set. You cannot climb the ladder of leadership if you skip any steps. You must embrace them all. Or you will be stuck on the lower rung—maybe even the lowest rung.
  8. Relying on Talent Alone. Good is the enemy of great. You must do the homework and practice/perform often.
  9. A response to Poor Information. Learn to discern the difference between good and bad input. Calibrate your tools.
  10. No Specific Goals. Too many people rely on their talent. You must set goals and follow them. Work them. Leadership doesn’t happen in a day, but it does happen daily! Set your goals, write them down, visit them often.

So how do you fail forward?

  1. Realize there is one major difference between average people and achieving people. Do the homework/work.
  2. Learn a new definition of failure. If your definition is keeping you down, change your definition!
  3. Remove the “you” from failure. Failure is an event—not a person. Zig Ziglar.
  4. Take action and reduce your fear. We fear because we haven’t finished the work! We don’t know the outcome.
  5. Change your response to failure by accepting responsibility. Do. The. Homework. Change your work ethic!
  6. Don’t let the failure from outside get inside you. Keep getting up on the outside when you get knocked down on the inside. Always.
  7. Say goodbye to yesterday. Stop thinking about the past. Today is the first day of moving forward. You’re still alive!
  8. Change yourself, and your world changes. You cannot change the world, but you can change yourself. Do it!
  9. Get over yourself and start giving yourself. Life isn’t about you! Add value to everyone, everyday. Plan it every day.
  10. Find the benefit in every bad experience. If you don’t learn from the past, you are destined to repeat it.
  11. If at first you do succeed, try something harder. Push yourself! Maybe you set your bar too low. We are fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image. That means you have a lot of good stuff in you. Use it.
  12. Learn from a bad experience and make it a good experience. Take the time to reflect (daily) and understand what happened and why. Then change to make it better—immediately and specifically.
  13. Work on the weakness that weakens you. Ask others. Ask family. Ask your boss. Ask me. What are your weaknesses and how do you fix them or better yet, make them strengths!

Except for the movies, nobody goes the distance for 15 rounds without endurance training. Nobody. If you fail backwards, you let that failure defeat you. You give up. You have no perseverance. Only by getting on and staying on target will you get to the end—failing forward as you go. If you cannot do it alone, get a coach or a mentor. Why do you think good athletes have coaches? They need that extra push to compete with the best and have a potential to win. There’s no shame and lots of wisdom in having accountability. The more mentors you have, the higher chance you have in life for success. At least until you learn how to have the tenacity and perseverance to go the distance. Until then, lean on the others for help.

Fall down seven times, get up eight. (Japanese Proverb)

Rocky got up and stayed in the game—over and over and over and over again. Those who are doers of the word and not merely hearers (James 1:22), are in the game for keeps—to win the imperishable prize. What does it take for you to embrace your failures and lean forward into success? Keep going forward. Don’t stop one foot from the goal line. Even if you are taking two steps forward and one step back, you’re still moving forward! To persevere is to get up and keep going when you fail—and the key to success is in perseverance. Or in other words, the goal is perseverance—the action item is failing forward. So the real key to success, is to fail forward—every time. And persevere!

About the Author…

Leadership and personality specialist Royce White, CEO and founder of The Caris Group, offers keen awareness and specific solutions to pastors, staff, and their congregations on how to help them build and maintain strong and healthy leaders and churches. You can pick up his new book, Who’s Killing Your Church? here.

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Recommended Reading by John Maxwell—links to Amazon

Failing Forward

15 Invaluable Laws of Growth

21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership

17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork

5 Levels of Leadership

My Books (Royce)—

Positive Accountability

Who’s Killing Your Church

Full disclosure—Caris gets a small % of each sale. Your cost is not different—we just get a couple percent for sending you to Amazon.