IT WAS A FEW MINUTES BEFORE air time and the talk show host was about to begin his daily radio program. He poured himself a cup of coffee and then, turning to me, said something surprising:
"You know, this job never gets any easier," confessed this erudite man who for years has presided over an extremely popular call-in show. "Every time I go on the air, I have to overcome a fear that I'll fail; that the show won't be any good."
He paused. "But I've found out something interesting about failing. And that is, you can build on success but you really learn only from failure."
A few days later a letter arrived that seemed, in a way, to continue this line of thought. Written by a young man I know quite well, the letter concerned itself with the idea that adversity might offer, in the long run, more rewards than getting what you thought you wanted. He wrote:
"What I guess I'm learning from my difficult situation is a deeper sense of who I am. And what I'm capable of when it comes to handling disappointment. I think -- at least I hope -- I'll come out of this a stronger person."
Then last week, in what seemed a curious completion of the philosophy lurking beneath both these remarks, I came across this unattributed quotation in a book on mountain climbing:
"Today is a new day; you'll get out of it just what you put into it. If you have made mistakes, even serious mistakes, you can make a new start whenever you choose. For the thing we call failure is not the falling down but the staying down."
Few among us can claim the distinction of not knowing the sting of falling down, of "failure." The promotion not gotten; the honor not won; the job lost, the praise denied; we've all known the loss of self-esteem that comes with such moments. And because the wound of failure is a deep one, we seldom risk sharing our feelings about such moments.
Which strikes me as unfortunate. Because when people are willing to share such feelings, you can learn a lot. Listen, for instance, to this:
"Success does not necessarily build character -- sometimes it doesn't even build self-confidence," says a friend, one judged by the world to be successful. "But most people I know can point to a disappointment or a failure that resulted in what I would call a quantum leap of self-knowledge and self-confidence. The confidence comes from knowing that you can get through 'failure' and come out stronger on the other side."
Still, she admits it is a "painful process to go through."
Some successful people find that they become "addicted" to honors and accolades. And when they don't get them, when they're just doing well at their job -- not sensationally well -- they feel depressed.
"It's taken me a long time to understand that prizes and honors, while wonderful to receive, have a short shelf life," says one successful journalist. "I have found that the sense of achievement you get from 'winning' needs to be constantly renewed. It's not winning that's hard. But that's when you learn to dig deeper and do your best work. Not for the rewards of success but for the rewards of self-respect."
Of course you don't dig down to the level of bedrock he's talking about without considerable blood, sweat and tears.
A few years back I found myself needing to dig down deep to find a firmer foundation upon which to build my understanding of what success is and what failure is. And my friend was right: It is quite a painful experience to confront the loss of some trapping or another that seems bound up with success.
But eventually what emerged from the digging was a sense of something akin to freedom. A realization that there's a feeling of accomplishment and success that comes from mastering the pain of failure. And then getting on with the job.
Accolades are wonderful. Promotions are wonderful. Success -- however you define it -- is wonderful. But none of them, in my experience, really teaches you anything of lasting value about yourself.
Adversity, on the other hand, can be an inspirational teacher.
It is written somewhere that you stand on the summit for only a few moments; then the wind blows your footprints away.
Life's like that, too. Harvard Business School probably doesn't teach that to its MBA's. But you know what? Maybe it should.