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Failure is Not Final

by Dr. John C. Maxwell

Have you seen the inspiring commercial that Michael Jordan did for Nike? It's the one where he talks about all of his mistakes, such as the free throws and game-deciding shots that he's missed over the years.

I love that commercial for its right attitude about failure, but I'm even more impressed with it after seeing a follow-up interview with Jordan.

A reporter asked Michael Jordan if the statistics that he quoted in the commercial were correct. Jordan's response? "I don't know."

Now that answer surprised me at first, until I realized its significance: Michael Jordan is so unconcerned with failure that he truly has no idea how many shots he's missed in his career or how many games have been lost because of his mistakes. He simply took the word of the statisticians at Nike for those numbers.




Like Jordan, we all fail. Success isn't based on "avoiding" failure, but on "facing" it correctly. William A. Ward said, "Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead-end street."

Successful leaders don't avoid failure. They "handle" it --successfully. Over the years, five observations have helped me maintain the right attitude toward failure, and I believe they can help you too.


The book of Proverbs in the Old Testament tells us that the way we think determines who we are: "As he thinketh in his heart, so is he. .." (Prov. 23:7, KJV). Thus, when we focus on failure, we actually risk MAKING ourselves fail.

Years ago, the Flying Wallendas, a family of high wire performers, received a lot of attention for their death-defying feats. But tragedy struck in 1978, when at age 73, Karl Wallenda, the patriarch of the family, fell to his death while attempting to walk a tightrope between two buildings in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

What many people don't know is that this incredibly skilled man, who'd completed thousands of successful wire walks in the past, had spent the three months preceding this attempt "thinking about falling".

A newspaper reporter, writing at the time of his death, commented, "When Karl Wallenda poured his energies into not falling, rather than into walking the tightrope, he was destined to fall."

If you spend much time worrying about failure, you, too, increase your chances of taking a fall.


Many people are deathly afraid of failure. They see it as their worst enemy. But successful people recognize that failures—treated properly--can lead to great success.

Elbert Hubbard said, "Constant effort and frequent mistakes are the stepping-stones of genius." Failures can be great learning experiences. As a leader, I believe I've had more failures than most people. But I've also had many successes. Why? Because to me, "trying" is more important than "not failing". And when I do make mistakes, I use them as learning experiences, asking, "What did I do wrong, and how can I do it better next time?"

Don't try to hide your mistakes. Admit them, and then learn and grow from them. Since you will have failures, why not treat them as the friends they can be?


Failure sometimes affects people so negatively that it stops them permanently. Rather than treating failure as the momentary occurrence that it is, they build a permanent monument to it that blocks their forward progress.

I remember once meeting with the leaders of an organization that hadn't grown for ten years. When I outlined what they could do to grow and expand, the board president exclaimed, "We can't try those things! We might fail!"

His fear of future failure had already caused him to fail in the present. Don't let momentary mistakes keep you from long-term growth.


Abraham Lincoln said "Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm." And he was a man who knew defeat. He was born into poverty. The only education he received he acquired himself. He failed in business, and he was defeated numerous times for public office.

With each setback, Lincoln continued to persevere and learn from his mistakes. Rather than being a failure at success, he experienced successful failures. The experiences didn't stop him; they taught him.


The Apostle Paul is a wonderful example of someone who faced failure positively. Rather than seeing adversity as defeat, he welcomed it as a fresh opportunity.

When shipwrecked on Malta, he ministered to the people. When arrested, he saw it as a chance to preach the Gospel. As he said, "My dear friends, I want you to know that what has happened to me has helped to spread the good news" (Phil. 1:12, CEV).

When our attitudes are right, failure actually helps and improves us. It gives us a chance to see where we fall short, to change, and to learn more about ourselves and how we can grow to our maximum potential.

The bottom line is that "failing to try" is the greatest failure anyone can experience. If we don't make the attempt, we cannot succeed. One of the best examples of this can be seen in the life of the baseball great, Ty Cobb. In 1915, he set what was then the all-time record for stolen bases in a season with 96 steals. Seven years later, Max Carey set the second-best record with 51 stolen bases. Amazingly, Carey failed only 2 times in 53 attempts. Cobb failed 38 times in his 134 attempts. I suspect that if Carey had tried more times, he would have set a record that would be unbeaten today!

As leaders, we must be less like Carey and more like Cobb. We must make the attempt and become the best we can at whatever God is calling us to do. And we will only do that if we put failure in the proper perspective. Failure doesn't have to be final.


John Maxwell is the founder of INJOY, an organization dedicated to helping people maximize their personal and leadership potential. He is the author of twenty-one books, including The Success Journey, Developing the Leader Within Your, and Becoming a Person of Influence.

You can visit Dr. Maxwell at his Web site:


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