EWB in 2016

Failure is an event, not a person

By Hon. Bob Rae

It was on a recent trip to Israel, visiting a high tech company to discuss that country’s remarkable success in innovation, that I heard the wonderful expression “failure is an event, not a person”. It has stuck with me ever since, because it points to an important lesson in life. The individual went on to say that he was more interested in hiring people who had tried and failed than those who had a perfect track record. “All innovation is born in failure, not in success — I want people who are not afraid to try, and know that many attempts at something will be met by failure, not immediate success. Success usually comes after many tries.”

Psychologists also tell us that the basis of most neurosis is the false belief that life is about perfect.

The fear of failure is perfectionism’s cousin. Both lead to playing it safe, never trying anything new, and refusing to embrace the truly human and imperfect world we we all live in.

Thomas Edison, one of the greatest inventors in history, once said that he had no failures, only experiments that didn’t work the first time. JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript was rejected by 12 publishers until she found the 13th. Stories are legion of people we know as huge “successes” — from Lincoln to Einstein — failing many times before finding their way to achieving something durable.

In my own political life, I’ve had my share of failures as well as successes, and have always tried to make both an experience to savour and to learn. It’s not easy, but it’s important to develop the habit early. It took some time, but I have become more open about facing up to my own challenges with mental health, and in doing so understanding that there’s no shame in having lived through the challenges of depression and anxiety.

I’ve also learned that the one quality people look for in a successful leader is the ability to accept criticism and embrace advice from people who don’t agree with you. That’s tough to do – no one likes being told “you’re wrong” or “you didn’t do it well”, but a refusal to listen leads to isolation, distance, and even more failures ahead. Embracing other people’s opinions — even those harshly expressed– is hard to do but it needs to happen to make life a genuine chance to learn, to improve, and to get it right. Learning not to take criticism personally is hard to do, but it needs to happen. Narcissism is not a great leadership quality (although many leaders unfortunately for us all suffer from it) because it draws so heavily on perfectionism, self-centredness, and the “all about me” syndrome that are the opposite of good leadership.

The trouble with all this advice, of course, is that it comes to you from outside and not from within. Experience is another name for someone else’s mistakes, and one of life’s great challenges is absorbing counsel, however wise, from others. Something in us finds it difficult to accept, and we end up needing to make our own mistakes before finding our way and our own truths.

But avoiding, or overcoming, discouragement in the face of adversity matters because getting down on ourselves makes it even harder to see the way to a better result. “Cut yourself some slack” might be strange advice to engineers, pilots, or brain surgeons, because the consequence of failure can be so serious, but even in these fields the key is to build systems that allow for human error without disastrous consequences. And, of course, to allow people in the most exacting of professions to learn from mistakes, and the mistakes of others.

I write all this because I’ve had to learn it. As a political leader I had trouble embracing criticism, and had a tendency to solitude which was not the best route to follow. When I became interim leader of the Liberal Party I tried hard to learn from the earlier mistakes of my political career. As I became more experienced, and more comfortable in my own skin, I was more open to embracing a less than perfect performance, without slipping into complacency or self satisfaction.

None of this is an excuse to be lackadaisical, or too relaxed to do our best. We try hard, and know that hoping and wishing are no substitutes for real effort. Of all the virtues, courage is the most important, because it alone makes all the others possible. This is starting to sound a little preachy. So be it. Better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all.

That is the point of this famous comment by Theodore Roosevelt :

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Only those who have been defeated can truly savour victory, and also know that both are fleeting.


Bob Rae, PC CC O.Ont QC, was elected eleven times to the House of Commons and the Ontario legislature between 1978 and 2013.  He was Ontario’s 21st Premier from 1990 to 1995, and served as interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada from 2011 to 2013. He is working now as a lawyer, negotiator, mediator, and arbitrator, with a particular focus on first nations, aboriginal, and governance issues.  He also teaches at the University of Toronto School of Governance and Public Policy, and is a widely respected writer and commentator. Bob has authored four books, the most recent being “What’s Happened to Politics?”, a thorough examination of the state of Canadian politics and what can be done to fix it.

RonanOFailure is an event, not a person
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