Failing forward: Transforming mistakes into success

Sometimes the best personal finance books aren’t about personal finance.

In June 2006, for example, I shared a brief review of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. Ostensibly this book is about creativity and overcoming procrastination, but I found its lessons valuable for pursuing my financial goals. Last year I read Mastery by George Leonard. On the surface, this book has nothing to do with money, yet it’s one of the best books about money I’ve ever read.

John C. Maxwell’s Failing Forward is another of this ilk. It’s not meant to be a personal finance book, yet I’m willing to bet that more of you can improve your financial lives by reading it than by reading The Automatic Millionaire or Personal Finance for Dummies (though these are both fine books). Why? Because books like Failing Forward apply to your entire life rather than just one part of it.

Failing Forward

I clearly remember a period during the late 1990s during which I felt like a failure. I felt washed up. I felt like I was sleepwalking through life, accumulating debt, eating too much, working in a job I hated. Every time I ate a hamburger or bought something on credit — or worse, bought a hamburger on credit — I felt this failure meant that I was a failure.

But what I eventually learned was that failing at one thing is not failing at all things. And, in fact, failure is a necessary part of growth. Life is filled with trial and error. In order to walk the path to success, you need to make some wrong turns along the way.

What I learned, to use John C. Maxwell’s terminology, was to “fail forward”, to use each mistake to make myself better. He writes:

One of the greatest problems people have with failure is that they are too quick to judge isolated situations in their lives and label them as failures. Instead, they need to keep the bigger picture in mind. [A successful baseball player] doesn’t look at an out that he makes and think of failure. He sees it within the context of the bigger picture. His perspective leads to perseverance. His perseverance brings longevity. And his longevity gives him opportunities for success.

There’s a reason that one of Get Rich Slowly’s core tenets is: Failure is okay. As I was paying off my debt, I made lots of mistakes. I still do. When I bought my Mini Cooper, for example, I didn’t do everything I could have done to get the best deal possible. That’s okay. I try not to let mistakes drag me down. Instead of focusing on the things I did wrong during that transaction, I remember that in the Big Picture, I’m doing awesome. And I’ll try to use my mistakes to do better next time.

Seven Ways to Fail Forward

In Failing Forward, Maxwell writes that there are seven key abilities that allow successful people to fail forward instead of taking each setback personally. Successful people:

  1. Reject rejection. Successful people don’t blame themselves when they fail. They take responsibility for each setback, but they don’t take the failure personally.
  2. View failure as temporary. “People who personalize failure see a problem as a hole they’re permanently stuck in,” writes Maxwell. “But achievers see any predicament as temporary.”
  3. View each failure as an isolated incident. Successful people don’t define themselves by individual failures. They recognize that each setback is a small part of the whole.
  4. Have realistic expectations. This one is huge. Too many people start big projects — such as paying off their debt — with the unrealistic expectation that they’ll see immediate results. Success takes time. When you pursue anything worthwhile, there are going to be bumps along the way. And remember: The perfect is the enemy of the good.
  5. Focus on strengths. This was one of the biggest lessons I took away from Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek. When I interviewed Ferriss last year, I asked him to expand on this idea. He told me: “Focus on leveraging and amplifying your strengths, which allows you to multiply your results. Fix any fatal weaknesses to the extent that they prevent you from reaching your goals, but perfection isn’t the path to your objectives; finding ways to cater to your strengths is.”
  6. Vary approaches. “Achievers are willing to vary their approaches to problems,” Maxwell writes. “That’s important in every walk of life, not just business.” If one approach doesn’t work for you, if it brings repeated failure, then try something else. Maxwell is saying that to fail forward, you must do what works for you, not necessarily what works for other people.
  7. Bounce back. Finally, successful people are resilient. They don’t let one error keep them down. They learn from their mistakes and move on.

These seven points form a firm foundation for dealing with failure in all parts of life, including personal finance. As you pay off your debt, as you learn to invest, as you cut your spending, remember that some failure is inevitable. But you are not your mistakes. Own them, learn from them, and move on. Continue to pursue your goals.

Stepping Stones to Success

Maxwell peppers his book with anecdotes from celebrities, entrepreneurs, and famous people like Edison and Mozart. He uses their stories to illustrate how successful people don’t let failure trap them; they “fail forward” instead. He also cites scientific research and shares stories from his own life.

Failing Forward is a motivational book, one that helped me break out of a funk and put me in the right frame of mind. Reading this helped me realize — again — that failure isn’t an end. It is, as Maxwell notes, just a stepping stone to success.

Related reading:

Note: I listened to the audio version of this book, and did not read the print edition. I have a print copy that I referred to while writing this review, but the version I audited while strolling through the neighborhood was abridged. Though I think it unlikely, it’s possible that the print edition is padded with filler.

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