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The stone the builders rejected

| Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Fail is a four letter word both literally and metaphorically. Popular culture often derides failure as something final and catastrophic with terms like “epic fail.” However, failure does not necessarily have to be a setback. Many of history’s greatest entrepreneurs, statesmen and innovators failed countless times before striking success. Failure can be a constructive and useful force. Critiquing the conventional interpretation of failure, Thomas Edison famously quipped that “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Failure in business is inevitable. Business is almost always predicated on boom and bust cycles which create clear zero-sum results. Facebook’s rise directly contributed to Myspace’s demise. Entrepreneurs face innumerable personal and professional setbacks before “hitting it big.” Jack Ma, the founder of the Chinese technological behemoth Alibaba, is famous for overcoming an almost comical level of failure. Ma was the only one of twenty-four applicants to be denied a job at KFC when the fried chicken chain was rapidly expanding in Ma’s native China. He applied unsuccessfully to thirty other job openings after graduation. In 1999, Ma noticed an opportunity in the rapidly growing internet-based economy and founded Alibaba to cater towards Chinese users who were underserved in comparison to their American counterparts. Today, Alibaba is 19 years old and is one of the world’s largest retailers behind Walmart and CVS. Ma attributes this success to his persistence and optimism, traits he claims to have learned from one of his personal heroes, Forrest Gump. Jack Ma’s story is one of the truly great comeback stories of history.

Similar to Ma, former New York City Mayor and entrepreneur Michael Bloomberg overcame significant failure before founding his eponymous company. Bloomberg was unceremoniously let go from running Salomon Brother’s IT department in 1981. Being laid off is painful regardless of the circumstances, but Bloomberg’s firing was particularly inopportune — he was at the firm for nearly 15 years and had a one year old daughter at the time. However, Bloomberg embraced this failure and used it as an opportunity to capitalize on a void in the market for quick, high-quality business intelligence. Bloomberg Terminals, which are ubiquitous on trading floors all over the world, made its creator the richest man in New York City, the city with the most US-dollar billionaires in the world.

Mohamed Yunus, the Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize winner, encourages those struggling with unemployment to reimagine themselves as “job creators” rather than “job seekers.” Both billionaires, Ma and Bloomberg, used entrepreneurship as a means to rebound from failure. If they were able to hold onto comfortable salaried jobs, they wouldn’t have had the need to start their own businesses. Conceivably, if Jack Ma landed a job at KFC, with its 96% acceptance rate, he would still be making fried chicken in his hometown of Hangzhou. Alibaba, Bloomberg and many other businesses were successful due to the grit and determination of founders who effectively recovered from adversity and failure.

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, faced countless setbacks throughout his life. At the age of twenty-three, Lincoln opened up an ill-fated general store in rural Illinois. Imagine if Lincoln did not experience entrepreneurial failure and instead, his early commercial ventures were more successful. He might have remained a county general store proprietor who never even considered entering politics.

Failure is even more pervasive in politics than in business. In first past the post democracies, such as the United States, the candidate who receives a simple plurality of the vote wins, everyone else loses. Many prominent politicians, including the aforementioned Abraham Lincoln, lost the first time they sought elected office. However, successful politicians do not view these losses as failures, but rather as important lessons to better future campaigns. South Bend’s own Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s first foray into politics was an unsuccessful 2010 run for Indiana State Treasurer where he only received 37.5 percent of the vote. Mayor Pete did not lose faith and continued to seek elected office and in 2011 he won the South Bend Mayoral race with 74 percent of the vote. In the past seven years, Mayor Pete has been able to successfully rejuvenate a once stagnant rust belt town through effective community partnerships. For example, South Bend now has the world’s smartest sewer system due to the city partnering with a local startup saving taxpayers $100 million. Arguably, Mayor Pete has had a greater positive impact serving as a mayor than he would have had as Indiana’s State Treasurer. Due to his success as mayor and his unsuccessful DNC Chair campaign, Mayor Pete has created a strong national brand for himself attracting the attention of Poltico and the New York Times, not a small feat for the mayor of a mid-sized Indiana town with a population of 100,000.

Failure is popularly bemoaned, but through failure, opportunities otherwise ignored are explored. Many of history’s greatest explorers, innovators, entrepreneurs and politicians faced failure in their original career paths and were forced to evaluate other opportunities. These individuals eagerly embraced unexpected and unwanted change and harnessed it to achieve greater success. In the words of Sir Winston Churchill, “success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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