Failure is one of the greatest gifts bestowed on the faithful

February 24, 2007
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 24th February 2007

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“Tell me,” the young man asked the guru, “which is the path to success?” The guru said nothing but pointed to a path nearby. The young man almost ran in his enthusiasm to follow the wise one’s instructions. Minutes later came a loud “splat”.

The young man reappeared, bedraggled and covered in mud. Convinced that he must have misunderstood the guru’s advice, he asked the wise one again: “Which is the path to success?” Again the guru pointed in the same direction. A second time the young man set out, and again there was a loud “splat”.

This time he reappeared before the guru shaking with rage. “Twice you have pointed to a path, and twice I fell into a muddy pit. This time, no more gestures. Speak. Tell me the path to success.”

The guru looked at the young man and said: “Success is that way.” Then he added: “Just a little past splat.”

So write Jerry Porras, Stewart Emery and Mark Thompson in their engaging new book, Success Built to Last, and they are quite right. Success does not mean a life without failure. To the contrary, almost all the great figures in any field — arts, the sciences, business, and certainly the religious life — had more than their share of disasters. What marked them out was, first, their willingness to take risks, to experiment, and secondly, their ability to learn from failure rather than be defeated by it.

In my own pear-shaped moments, I think of George Bernard Shaw, who wrote five novels, each of which was turned down by every publisher.

Or Van Gogh who, in his lifetime, sold only one of his 1,700 paintings, even though his brother Theo was an art dealer. Or David Hume who said about his A Treatise of Human Nature, one of the enduring classics of philosophy, that it “fell stillborn from the press”. And so on.

One of my favourite stories is about Thomas Watson, the legendary head of IBM in the early years of computing. One of IBM’s employees had made a bad decision which cost the company $12 million. Eventually he was summoned to see the boss. “You are right to fire me, Mr Watson. I made a mistake and it was a bad one.” “Fire you?” said Watson, “We’ve just spent $12 million educating you!”

That is one of the deepest lessons of the spirit. Read the Bible and you will discover that Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Jonah and Job all reached a point in their lives when they prayed to die. They felt they had failed. Yet their lives inspire us still, centuries later. They were among the great leaders of all time.

Failure is the supreme learning experience, and the best people, the true heroes, are those most willing to fail. Whenever a young rabbi comes to seek advice after making a mistake, I tell him about professional photographers. They take dozens of exposures in the hope that one will be presentable. A success ratio of one in several dozen sounds like failure. But it is that willingness to endure failure in pursuit of an ideal that marks the true professional. In fact, that is not a bad definition of faith. One of the most empowering truths of Judaism and Christianity is that God forgives our failures so long as we acknowledge them as failures. He does not expect us to be perfect. As Ecclesiastes says: “No one on Earth is so righteous as to do only right and never to sin.”

God lifts us when we fall, gives us hope when we despair, and believes in us more than we believe in ourselves. In truth, the great religious leaders did not believe in themselves at all. “I am not a man of words”, said Moses when asked to lead the Israelites. “I cannot speak, I am only a child,” said Jeremiah when told to preach God’s word.

“The credit belongs,” said Theodore Roosevelt, to one “who strives valiantly” and errs often, “because there is no effort without error or shortcoming.” Even if such a person fails, he “fails while daring greatly, so his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat”.

Even more than the strength to win, we need the courage to try, the willingness to fail, the readiness to learn and the faith to persist.