Failure is Your Friend


ht_charlie_whittmack_ll_110715_wgOne of the key concepts in the MBA short course that I teach on “Managing Career Risk” is that failure plays a critical role in building a career that is ultimately satisfying in both the professional and personal realms.

I have framed this idea a number of ways over the years. Making mistakes is how you learn what not to do again. Failure lies not in making a mistake, but in refusing to try again. Failure is never fatal, just as success is never final. Failure is, in fact, a form of success as long as you are able to learn from it.

But those aphorisms are just words.  As I noted in my last blog on Teaching as a Map, what makes them come alive is a personal story of growing through failure to success.  

And come alive they did when Charlie Wittmack, an athlete who thrives on pushing the boundaries of his physical capacity, came to class and shared his 2010 struggle to complete all three legs of what he calls a “world triathlon”—a 10,000 mile journey that included swimming the Thames and the English Channel, cycling from France to Nepal, and summiting Mt. Everest.   

What made his story so compelling was his recognition, from the start, that he was attempting to do what most people considered to be impossible … his recognition that everyone expected him to fail.  

Ultimately, he completed all three legs of the triathlon.  But several times, along the journey, it seemed that he would fail. Perhaps the worst came when he collapsed from altitude sickness as he cycled up to the highest mountain pass in Tibet. But each “failure” left him closer to his goal than anyone ever imagined he would get. Each failure taught him lessons he could—and did—use in his next attempt.  Each failure left him that much closer to the goal he wanted to reach.

The point, I think, of Charlie’s story is not just that failure is your friend, but that if you think big enough, you can’t fail … you just get closer and closer to success.



  1. An inspirational story, Mary. Can’t help thinking that in his case, failure might well have been fatal, though, and several times along the way! Good thing writing is less physically hazardous. (Repetitive stress, carpal tunnel and ever-widening thighs notwithstanding.) We can drink alone to our failures, or in groups, or online… and toast them, and learn from them.

    Thanks to you, I’ve just dreamed up my new motto. Not very original, but that’s OK:
    “Live to write another day!”

    • Lindy … love your take on Charlie’s story. I see myself as more of a risk taker than most, but I’ve never even approached his level of “going for it.” But I think, even as a desk-bound writer, I can live a bit more “on the edge” than I do at the moment.

  2. Suzanne Link says

    Each failure was a necessary bridge. I love this.

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