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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Josh Moore
Josh Moore
10 years ago

I saw John Maxwell Speak live back in 2005 and it impacted my life in a great way! Have a print version of this book and think it is fantastic! Highly recommend the 21 irrefutable laws of leadership by him also (if not a little more than this book).

Great review, keep up the excellent work J.D.!

Amy
Amy
10 years ago

Fabulous positive message that I needed to hear today! Thanks!

RB @ RichBy30RetireBy40
RB @ RichBy30RetireBy40
10 years ago

Nice post and topic. Given many of us “failed” over the past 12-24 months financially given this downturn, it’s a good reminder that as the post says, “Failure Is Temporary”!

Failing at 72 years old like Bernie Madoff is a different story. Some may argue he actually wins! However, failure at an earlier age is fine, as you have a lifetime to learn and make up for it.

Best,

RB

Rich By 30 Retire By 40

Jenny
Jenny
10 years ago

I needed to read this today. I’ll have to keep an eye out at the library for this book as I think the message is one that I need to have reinforced right now. I went back to school when my kids headed to college, graduated at the very top of my class, got a super job, and was laid off a year later. Our family had struggle to make ends meet, using credit when I was in college on the assumption (yeah, I know) that my graduation would make the difference for us, that my first job would resolve… Read more »

HollyP
HollyP
10 years ago

My two young daughters and their quest to do a cartwheel are the perfect example of this. Three summers ago they started trying to cartwheel. My older daughter got frustrated and stopped trying because she couldn’t do it perfectly. She still can’t do one. My younger daughter decided to practice, learnign from her “failure.” She’s now able to do flawless cartwheels, as well as many other acrobatic feats, and was invited to join a gymnastics team.

Keep trying, keep practicing and you can do it.

Rob Bennett
Rob Bennett
10 years ago

Every thing a human learns is the result of the discovery of a mistake he has made.

There are no exceptions.

If you know it all at age 5, you have 75 years of life ahead of you without the joy of learning to sustain you.

When we fail, we learn what we got wrong. If our response is to get that thing right, we move ahead in ways that we never could have advanced before the failure.

Failure is a necessary step in a growth cycle. There is no way to ultimate victory except through failure.

Rob

Linear Girl
Linear Girl
10 years ago

JD, I think you should give yourself a break about not getting the very best possible deal on your Mini. I don’t think your actions count as a mistake at all. You paid a price that seemed fair and reasonable to you; you paid the amount that the car was worth to you which makes it inherently a good enough deal. You say you’re not focusing on your mistakes, but you’ve brought them up so often since you bought it that I beg to differ. Perhaps your history of impulse buying and the debt and remorse that engendered is coloring… Read more »

Jean
Jean
10 years ago

Have just returned from lunch, crestfallen. But I shall view the rhubarb crumble with custard that was most definitely NOT on my diet as an isolated incident, and focus on the fact that I chose high fiber rhubarb over jam roly-poly.

Feeling better already.

Tyler@FrugallyGreen
10 years ago

While I love self help books, the most important lessons I’ve ever learned from any book have never come from one telling me how to fix a specific problem. Like you said, those books have their place, but those that teach us lessons that can permeate to all parts of our lives are where real value lies.

Greenman
Greenman
10 years ago

JD,

I’d love to see you write a second review of this book, as it applies to your experience with diet and fitness, and post it on Get Fit Slowly.

Dan

Foxie@CarsxGirl
10 years ago

This is a GREAT post, and it sounds like a book that I really, really, really need to pick up. I’m having such a hard time with where I am right now in my life, and it sounds like it’d be great to pull me out of whatever rut I’ve fallen into. As for finances, each month still feels like a fight, but when I can look back and see how far I’ve come… I should stop beating myself up when I’m not sure how much I can put in my Roth IRA because my car needs better brakes. Brakes… Read more »

Nancy L.
Nancy L.
10 years ago

Building on Linear Girl’s thoughts (#7), I think another really important step is not to compare yourself to others. Nothing makes you feel bad about yourself quicker than looking at someone else’s “perfect life” and thinking that you are a failure in comparison. It’s like the person who spends months researching a vacation, and books the ticket for what seems like a great price. They are thrilled and tell everyone how much money they saved. Then on the trip they meet someone who got a last minute special and booked the same trip for a ridiculously low price. Suddenly their… Read more »

Sara Anderson
Sara Anderson
10 years ago

I think a lot of this is applicable when it’s life that fails you. I recently got extremely sick and it tore down most of the stable things in my life; job, social life, expectations about what to do in my future. There’s a LOT in your life at 25 that mostly relies on momentum that you’ve been building. I lost all of that, and am trying to start all over. Luckily, I had fantastic medical insurance, so I didn’t end up with any medical debt. A lot of goals I had are now not really possible, and I’ve been… Read more »

AJ
AJ
10 years ago

Excellent post! I have been living my life this way the last few months and I feel great! I will continue to fail and grow and I will love every minute of it.

Bradley Jones
Bradley Jones
10 years ago

This is something we all need to hear every so often. I’m only 21 and I’ve had quite a few times in the past couple years where I’ve felt like my life is going no where. And that’s no way to think. Getting in that mindset is usually what causes you to fail. You have to take the bad with the good and keep on going.

Kevin@OutOfYourRut
10 years ago

This is a great post on a personal finance site. When ever the topic is finance there are armies of experts, programs and math equations telling us we MUST do this, and we must NOT do that, as if we can program ourselves and our lives to comform with precision. As if compliance with the advice given results in a guaranteed outcome. So we’re scared to death to make a “mistake”. Despite the best advice, the most solid plans, we’re human. Things get in the way, other people get in the way, we get in the way of ourselves; it’s… Read more »

Melissa
Melissa
10 years ago

I’m looking for my first ‘real’ job out of law school, and I need to tape some of these things on my mirror. Especially ‘reject rejection.’ Job search = lots of rejection. As my father says, you have to have to develop a bit of rejection amnesia. It is so important to go into interviews feeling confident, so I guess I’ll just have to keep trying to fail forward for a while.

Carol
Carol
10 years ago

I really needed to read this right now. Many thanks.

Christina Gremore
Christina Gremore
10 years ago

I recently touched on the topic of failure on my blog. I think that school teaches us that we are supposed to be afraid of failure. For example, if a child get an ‘F’ (or anything less than a B) on one test, or in one class, do the adults involved think about any of the seven ways to fail forward? Generally not. Instead, they question the student’s intelligence, self-discipline, diligence, and his or her entire character, in some cases. I recall one history teacher who made me feel like a degenerate criminal if I opted to do spend my… Read more »

Kevin@OutOfYourRut
10 years ago

Christina (19)–Outstanding points! I think with mandatory education and the current trend favoring college as a psuedo default option, we often forget that probably the greatest period of economic and technological progress–the Industrial Revolution–was ushered in and advanced by a people in time who had little formal education. Is it possible that millions of people, entrepreneurs and inventors who built the era hadn’t been taught that failure was an end point? How much failure was the technology of the day built on? Edison reportedly failed 1000 times before hatching the electric lightbulb. Maybe by the time he did that his… Read more »

Writer's Coin
Writer's Coin
10 years ago

The baseball analogy is spot on. When I was younger I took every out very hard, often throwing my helmet and having a tantrum when things didn’t go my way. THen I’d watch major leaguers and wonder why they never got as upset. Well, they had the long term thing going on in their heads: they had 162 games to play so each out was nothing in the scheme of things.

Eden Jaeger
Eden Jaeger
10 years ago

“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.”

This so perfectly describes me right now, but sadly I’m not looking back at my life in the 90s. I guess I better hurry up and read this book! I’m going to check out the others you mentioned too.

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