The Myth of Success

Essays Introduction

Decisions Using Intuition & Creativity


No Left-out People

As If

The Crystal Structure

On Leadership

The Myth of Success

Doers & Creators

I, Committee
Once, when I was running the Planetarium, someone who had the chore of cranking out a grant application complained that most of our grant applications failed - so why bother? That was the early 80s, and we had lots of projects and initiatives on the go. In thinking about that complaint, I realized that we were always trying new things, and our success rate was about 1:20. That is 20 failures for every success. I am told that Hollywood expects that for every money-making blockbuster, there are 8 duds. I felt that both Hollywood and our Planetarium were successful.

As a consultant, it seems that I run down countless dead-end avenues of endeavour in order to stumble on the profitable way.

I think that this is the reality of success. Unfortunately, I think many people are not willing to cheerfully forge on when all they see is one failure after another. The problem is that we are haunted by the Myth of Success: the example of those individuals who seem to go through life never making a mistake, always doing the right things to land the big opportunities. There are people like that. And it is worth seeing how they do it because they may have discovered some useful techniques. Because of the Myth of Success, us ordinary folk will feel like failures long before we have done enough to be successful.

Learning to cope with failure is an important part of life - and one of the features of the landscape on the road to success. If one, or 10, or 100 failures allow a person to brand themselves with the feeling that the person is a failure, then all hope of the one or ten big successes are lost.

Enlightened businesses (run by people who read Tom Peters) now celebrate failure as the only road to success. Somehow it is harder for families and individuals to do that about themselves.

As an individual we are all ultimately failures. We die. A meteoroid travels for an eternity. Then, for a second or so it lights up the night sky and is vaporized. Its molecules are captured by the earth and will now play a different role in the story of the Universe. Each of us plays a tiny role in the story of Civilization/Life-on-earth/the Universe. With the frantic nature of our lives, it is hard to tell when we are really making our contribution - and how great it is. Humans and history give recognition for some kinds of achievement - but probably not for those things which are really important. (Important to what?)

My point is that failure is okay. Or, what is wrong, is the concept of failure. In an article I wrote some time ago I characterized us as 'Doers and Creators.' In that context, 'doing' is what is required, and the only failure is the failure to 'do.' Even 'doing' is an exaggerated term. 'Doing' may just be thinking and understanding - and communicating that understanding.

Part of the problem with failure is the sense that we have objectives to be met with every initiative. Objectives may be just the expectation of the result of some action. 'Doing' may then result in dashed expectations (failure to attain stated or implied objectives) rather than a positive step towards something worthwhile and unseen. I know that few things make a child more unhappy than dashed expectations. Unless our thinking changes, it is true for adults too.

So, I think that I have to learn to deal with the feeling of potential failure. If I do not I will be limited to safe courses of action (not taking 'calculated' risks) or inaction. That guarantees failure.

I would be interested to receive any comments you may wish to contribute. Please send me a note to


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© 1992 August 9, Robert J. Ballantyne
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