Business Insider

Nancy Napier: Failure can build resistance, set path for success

Nancy Napier
Nancy Napier

My two sons were tennis players from early on, but one of them really took it seriously only after a big failure. Perhaps a bit overconfident, this 10-year-old entered tournaments convinced he would win. He usually did not, but that never prevented him from believing the NEXT one would be "it."

One match, though, was heartbreaking to watch. The other kid's playing style was hard to deal with (he lobbed the balls so it threw off any rhythm for my son), and he had a huge cheering section that day. His parents and grandparents, siblings and cousins had come from out of town to support him. Alas, I was the sole cheerleader for my son. The play was hard enough, but what was even more difficult was hearing the adults clap and cheer when my son made mistakes - unnerving for a 10-year-old. In the end, he got flustered, did not play well and lost badly. Because of the cheering, other people had come to watch, so the loss was even more public.

This child, whom I've seen cry twice in 15 years (once after that match and once when our dog disappeared) sobbed in the car and pounded his fist on his leg.

"I'll NEVER let that happen again."

And he didn't. He started practicing with a verve and drive that carried through high school - hitting against the ball machine, working out to build muscle, focusing on each point (rather than going into a tournament saying he would win). He began winning tournaments and eventually played tennis in high school, where he and his partner were state doubles champs their senior year.

After watching some other sports failures recently - from tennis champs being defeated early in the U.S. Open (Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Venus Williams) to our own Boise State football team having its "nose bloodied," I got to thinking about a book that came out years ago on very successful young and old CEOs.

"Geeks and Geezers" by Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas (2002) looked at young (under 30) and old (over 60) CEOs for what they had in common. What they found intrigued me, and when I think about my son, it makes good sense.

It turns out that many things didn't seem to matter or influence their success - backgrounds, major in college (if they went), previous jobs. The major factor that they all had in common and felt was a huge influencer of their success was having some hardship they had to overcome relatively early in life. Some lost a parent, faced poverty or experienced some sort of public failure (Steve Jobs' firing from Apple comes to mind).

What separated those who succeeded later in life from those who became average business people was not the hardship itself, but their response to it: In a word, resilience.

So even though we'd like to protect our young employees (or children) from failure, from embarrassment, from making big mistakes, maybe that's not the best approach. Could we be denying them the opportunity to learn how to fail - and even more important, how to bounce back?

So next time YOU fail at something, congratulate yourself. Then think about how to use resilience to bounce back and be even stronger.