Legendary slugger Babe Ruth is rightly remembered for his prowess as the all-time home run king. What’s not as well known is his other notable achievement: 1,330 strike outs, by far the most in major league history. In another instance, in 1905, the University of Bern in Switzerland rejected the doctoral dissertation of a young German physics student. They called his work, “irrelevant and fanciful”. Albert Einstein, while bitterly disappointed, was not ultimately defeated.
Our culture has traditionally celebrated great achievement yet has not rightly understood the larger story, the role of pain, defeat, and failure in shaping greatness. Achievement and setback typically walk hand in hand.
Growing up as a young boy, my eyes would often fix upon a framed copy of the Kipling poem, “IF” on my bedroom wall. My Uncle Bill gave it to me when I turned eight. I recall ruminating over and over Kipling’s two imposters – success and failure. His notion was that neither success nor failure were permanent states that should define us unless we chose to make it so.
An influential mentor of mine, bankruptcy court Judge Martin Bostetter, told me of an experience he had in the 70s on a trip to Romania. He was asked to address the parliament on the merits of US bankruptcy law. Unlike our nation, countries like Romania criminalized bankruptcy, providing NO second chances. If you failed in business, your life was over. Judge Bostetter illustrated his point by placing a shiny, silver-wrapped Hershey Chocolate Kiss on the desk of each member. The parliamentarians “bemusement” turned to “Ah-ha” when Bostetter explained Milton Hershey’s business history. Hershey had suffered colossal business failures but eventually scored big in chocolate. America’s bankruptcy laws enabled him to begin anew, eventually creating significant wealth which he generously channeled towards the public good.
Failure need not define us. Thank God, it’s not the entire story.
I am frequently surprised by the biblical characters that God chose to use despite their ‘fallen-ness’. David was a murderer and adulterer. Paul persecuted Christians and was compliant in putting many to death. The individual upon whom Jesus built the early church, Peter, denied ever knowing Jesus on several occasions. He also clearly had anger issues, once using his sword to slice off the ear of one of Jesus’ detractors.
So clearly God’s ways are not man’s. We want our leaders to be different from us; smarter, more eloquent, problem-free, and perfect in most regards. When they evidence their clay feet,we are outraged and disappointed and yet, God seems to care about the heart rather than externalities. He prizes humility over pride and sees our very weakness as actual strength. This turns the success ethic on its head.
Jesus once used an odd occasion to explain what constituted real leadership and success. It seemed that the mother of two of Jesus’ disciples was lobbying him in hopes that in Paradise her two sons would sit on either side. As He frequently did, Jesus saw here a “teachable moment”. He explained that the one who would be great must serve and that to be the leader, he must be a servant of all.
Once again, the heart of success is quite different than is often thought. Humility, failure, heartache, and ‘moral bankruptcy’ are often the doorways to great achievement. Deep down we all know we are frauds: weak, envious, lustful, and selfish, utterly undeserving of great acclaim.
Most of us at some point in our lives come face to face with a circumstance that flattens us. We are discouraged, hopeless, and wondering if there is a way forward. And while some never move beyond such searing setbacks, others like Einstein do. How must Thomas Carlyle have felt after lending his manuscript, “The French Revolution”, to a close friend only to find that his friend’s servant had carelessly used its pages to kindle a fire? Carlyle calmly went about rewriting his epic work. Henry Ford failed and went broke five times before finally succeeding. Or consider Dr. Seuss whose initial children’s book, And to Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street, was rejected by 27 publishers. The 28th, Vanguard Press, sold 6 million copies of the book.
What can appear to be the end can actually be the launch pad of great achievement. Such blurring of failure and success is all deeply embedded in a spiritual narrative that promises new beginnings. As the Apostle Paul effused, “The past is finished and gone, all things are fresh and new.” And certainly Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, put it best, “Congratulations (blessed,) to you who know your need for God.” Authenticity and need rather than posing to be invulnerable and secure is true strength.
So, if you find yourself at the end of your tether, take heart, it might actually be the ‘pregnant pause’ before giving birth to the amazing possibilities that await.
J. Douglas Holladay is founder of PathNorth, which serves as a resource for business leaders to bring meaning and fresh perspective to both work and life.