Fail Forward: Failure is Crucial to Future Success

Did you know that in addition to the many honours that have been bestowed on Michael Jordan, including an National Basketball Association (NBA) record ten scoring titles, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time also holds the record for… most misses? Apparently, Michael Jordan took more shots at the basket than any other player in history, and not all of them went in. The good news is that many important, game-winning ones did!

Failing is something that I am really good at. My learning style tends to be: Go — Bump into a wall — Back Up — Find a New Solution and Go AGAIN. Losing, or failing, is an important part of the success journey. National Hockey League (NHL) teams win Stanley Cups by losing games. The term, “Failing Forward,” is a great way to articulate what excellent players have learned to do, and was, incidentally, the title of a chapter in my first book, Off the Bench and into the Game. The best of the best, win their losses. In other words, people who excel in sports, life and family view failure as an opportunity to learn, adjust and improve. 

Over the years I have found how we name things to be really important. The word, “failure,” sounds personal and when applied to my own actions, seems to be attacking who I am. If I add the word, “forward,” however, the context changes for the better. And the idea of “winning your losses” is positive and directive; it’s a game that we play, a continual, productive process. Using carefully selective words, even in our own minds, helps define the context and meaning they have in our lives. 

One of my favourite NHL coaches, Pat Quinn (who I played for with the Vancouver Canucks), had a plaque in his office, which read: “A FAILED project is not a FAILED person.” I love the practical truth of this statement. We often mistakenly personalize failure by using catastrophic language: “If X happens, then I must be Y.” Of course, this is very seldom true. 

During the 1986 playoff season, I watched all but the last 5 games because I had sustained a broken ankle in one of our last regular-season games. Think about that. People call me a winner because I played a very small part on a Stanley Cup-winning team. The following post-season, in 1987, I had a terrific playoff, leading the team in most offensive categories, but because we did not win the Cup that season… was I a failure? 

My late friend, Abe Pollin, who owned the Washington Capitals when I played on the team, was one of my favourite people in our game. A period of time went by when I had not been in touch with Abe, and one day my intuition said, “Call Abe!” So, I called him. The conversation went like this:

Abe: “Ryan, why did you call today?” 

Me: “No idea; my tummy said call Abe.” 

Abe: “Tonight I am winning the Entrepreneur of the Year award for Washington DC.” 

Me: “Abe, congratulations! You are going to receive a trophy, so that means that you will give a speech. What are you going to speak about?” 

Abe: “I am going to tell one story and then sit down.”

Me:  “Abe, I’m salivating! You have to tell me the story.” 

Abe: “OK. When I was 16 years old I had two best friends and we all had one objective – to make the basketball team in high school that fall. We shot baskets; we lifted weights; we ran; we did everything; we were ready to make that team! Everything was on track until two days before try-outs and then… I chickened out. I chickened out! That fall I watched my two best friends make the team and win a championship. That fall I watched people do what I should have been doing. That fall I swore to myself that I would never chicken out of life again. If I was supposed to do something, I would get it done.”

Abe died a billionaire.

Sometimes personal failings can have a long-term positive effect on our lives. I love Abe’s story because in his journey he had to make a decision, would he allow this personal failure to define his life, or refine his life? In other words, would he allow it to make him bitter or better?

For many of us, failure traumatizes us and slows down our forward movement. Dr. Ben Carson, a professor of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University, has faced many complex life or death decisions over the course of his career. In his book, Take the Risk, Carson reveals four simple questions to ask yourself as you are making next-step, post-failure decisions:

  1. What is the best that could happen if I do this?
  2. What is the worst that could happen if I do this?
  3. What is the best that could happen if I don’t do this?
  4. What is the worst that could happen if I don’t do this?

The answers to these four questions can help us out of paralysis and back onto our failing forward track. I hope you are becoming as comfortable with the two words, failing and forward, as I am. Remember that Michael Jordan became the best in the NBA by failing more than anyone else. Abe Pollin allowed not moving forward when he should have, to accelerate his future forward movement. 

Have fun working out failing forward in this game called life.

About The Author

Ryan Walter played more than 1000 games over 15 NHL seasons. Drafted second overall by the Washington Capitals (where he became the NHL’s youngest captain), Ryan won a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens before finishing his playing career as a Vancouver Canuck...CONTINUE.

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