To Embrace Greatness, Embrace Failure: 21 Tributes to Failure

Here’s the deal: You’re smart. You’re creative. You know what you’re doing.

But you’re scared as hell of failing and making mistakes. Maybe it’s because you’ve been so damned good at whatever you’ve done for your whole life. Maybe it’s because you quit a good thing to pick up something risky. Maybe it’s because you’re scared of what happens when you don’t fail.

I get that. I do. I could write all day about how you need to embrace failure and mistakes before you can really unleash your creative potential, but who am I to tell you this? So I’ve enlisted the help of a few thousand years worth of creatives to help me out:

If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.
-Thomas A. Edison (1847 – 1931), Encyclopaedia Britannica

I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit – I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.
-Ernest Hemingway

To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.
-Joseph Chilton Pearce

No man ever became great or good except through many and great mistakes.
-W. E. Gladstone

To make no mistakes is not in the power of man; but from their errors and mistakes the wise and good learn wisdom for the future.
-Plutarch (46 AD – 120 AD)

The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything.
-E. J. Phelps

Some of the best lessons we ever learn are learned from past mistakes. The error of the past is the wisdom and success of the future.
-Dale E. Turner

Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.
-Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900), The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891

Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.
– Steve Jobs (1955 – )

If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not working on hard enough problems. And that’s a big mistake.
-Frank Wilczek (1951 – )

If I had my life to live over… I’d dare to make more mistakes next time.
-Nadine Stair

Mistakes are the portals of discovery.
-James Joyce (1882 – 1941)

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.
-Scott Adams (1957 – ), ‘The Dilbert Principle’

To avoid situations in which you might make mistakes may be the biggest mistake of all.
-Peter McWilliams, Life 101

If I had to live my life again, I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner.
-Tallulah Bankhead (1903 – 1968)

A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.
-George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950)

You cannot measure a man by his failures. You must know what use he makes of them. What did they mean to him. What did he get out of them.
-Orison Swett Marden (1850 – 1924)

If you have made mistakes, even serious ones, there is always another chance for you. What we call failure is not the falling down but the staying down.
-Mary Pickford (1893 – 1979)

Don’t be discouraged by a failure. It can be a positive experience. Failure is, in a sense, the highway to success, inasmuch as every discovery of what is false leads us to seek earnestly after what is true, and every fresh experience points out some form of error which we shall afterwards carefully avoid.
-John Keats (1795 – 1821)

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.
-Theodore Roosevelt (1858 – 1919)

Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure. You are thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t as all. You can be discouraged by failure – or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because, remember, that’s where you will find success.
-Thomas J. Watson

The bottomline: I’d tell you to get over your fear of failure and mistakes, but it’s natural to feel that way. I’m asking you to understand that failure and mistakes are part and parcel of greatness. You can either let fear of failure and mistakes cripple you and keep you stuck, or you can join the rest of the successes throughout history and rack up a good tab of failures and mistakes while you’re at it. Your call.

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  1. says

    Some great quotes Charlie.

    Unfortunately most people don’t want to hear them in my experience and insist on putting all their energy into avoiding failure.

    Not sure who said it (Seth Godin maybe?), but one of my faves is “Fail, fail fast and fail often”

    Tim Brownsons last blog post..Change Is Always Possible

  2. says

    @Tim yes, I believe that’s from The Dip by Seth Godin. Love that book.

    Thanks Charlie for another great post. I often say “OK, I eliminated another solution that doesn’t work” when I fail rather than berating myself for failing. But I still need work on keeping that fear of failure from blocking me from getting started. Usually the anticipation is worse than the reality.

  3. says


    I am a massive Hemingway fan and I had his “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit” quote taped to my laptop when I was writing the first draft of my novel. Every time I stopped and wondered if I should keep going, when it seemed I was writing total garbage, I would look at that quote and power on. It’s the single most important thing which helped me persevere and finish.

    I also love “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” Brilliant!


    PS. How did you get those RSS numbers my friend? Do tell!

    Kelly@SHE-POWERs last blog post..Birthday Reflections & The Voices In My Head

  4. Charlie says

    @Tim: it’s a hard habit to break, I admit. The amount of energy we spend buttressing this fear is amazing – especially when you consider where that energy comes from. It’s the fear of failure that makes us more likely to fail in the grand scheme of things.

    @Mike: Creative exercises that test what’s the worst that can happen have a tendency to show how much the anticipation is worse than the reality. Every once in a while I have to sit back and say “What’s the worst that can happen if I give this a shot with everything I have.” Usually, it’s wasted time. The benefits, though, are almost always worth the gamble.

    @Kelly: That Hemingway quote is one of my favorites. The Art one is great, too – because I’ve learned how to figure out which one’s to keep and which ones to let sit.

    Re: readers. Bribes. You didn’t get bribed because I knew you were already reading. Really, though, it’s been building pretty steady for a while.

    @Niki: Glad to have helped! Thanks for commenting!

  5. says

    Charlie, another really great post! It reminds us that the fear of failure is not new. It is uniquely human but can be overcome. Others have gone before us and advise us to embrace it and use it, not fear it. We should trust these sages and go forth and fail our way to success. Thanks Charlie.

  6. Anonymous says

    To make no mistakes is not in the power of man; but from their errors and mistakes the wise and good learn wisdom for the future.
    -Plutarch (46 AD – 120 AD)

    pls can someone tell me from which book is that part? thanks

  7. says

    Thanks for sharing Charlie….
    I lost over $6 million dollars in real estate, went through 7 short sales, and almost lost my family….BUT we made it through and about to publish our our first book. Hopefully it blesses others with the spirit of hope…….

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