Failing Forward – John C. Maxwell


Some people go through life as though they’re invulnerable, achieving everything they want to achieve and often with little to no disruption along the way. But it’s not just luck or a Midas touch that these people are blessed with – rather, Maxwell says, “The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure.”

Most of us aren’t raised to be prepared for failure, and in fact most of us actively fear it, avoiding situations in which failure seems like a possibility. In this book, Maxwell’s message is that we’re approaching it the wrong way, and that failure can be a friend to us if only we’ll allow it. Failure shouldn’t be a force that holds us back – it should be something that drives us forward.

The good news is that Maxwell is an expert in his field, with an impressive career that shows a track record of success. He’s the founder of the INJOY Group, and he speaks to as many as 250,000 people every year. On top of that, Failing Forward is far from his only book, although it is arguably his most well-known – of the 20+ others that he’s written, titles include The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership and The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader. (Check out John Maxwell other books on Amazon HERE)

And so with such a solid pedigree and such an important topic, it’s pretty clear that this is the type of book that has something to offer to everyone, from CEOs of multinational companies to entry-level employees trying to make their mark on the workplace. And so, without further ado, let’s dive on in and see what Maxwell has to teach us on the subject of failing forward.

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Failing Forward – Turning Mistakes Into Stepping Stones for Success

Failing Forward was first published back in 2000, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that it’s somehow less relevant than more recent releases. In fact, it’s arguably become a classic in the field of business books, and there’s a good chance that you’ve already come across some of the wisdom that Maxwell has to share.  (Check out the latest price on Amazon HEREOpens in a new tab.)

Maxwell kicks the book off by redefining failure and success, explaining, “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.” He says that failure isn’t avoidable, an event, objective, the enemy, irreversible, a stigma or final, all of which should help to give readers the confidence to make mistakes in the name of personal growth.

Maxwell’s argument is that it all comes down to the way in which we look at things, something which is reflected by the Thomas Edison quote, “Many of life’s failures are people who didn’t realise how close they were to success when they gave up.” And while I don’t recall seeing the quote inside the book, it puts me in mind of the John Lennon line, “A mistake is only an error. It becomes a mistake when you fail to rectify it.”

If You’ve Failed, Are You A Failure?

The difference here is the same as the difference between losing a battle and losing a war. Maxwell explains this succinctly when he says, “Every successful person is someone who failed, yet never regarded himself as a failure. For example, Wolfgang Mozart, one of the geniuses of musical composition, was told by Emperor Ferdinand that his opera The Marriage of Figaro was ‘far too noisy’ and contained ‘far too many notes’. Vincent van Gogh, whose paintings now set records for the sums they bring at auction, sold only one painting in his lifetime. Thomas Edison, the most prolific inventor in history, was considered unteachable as a youngster. And Albert Einstein, the greatest thinker of our time, was told by a Munich schoolmaster that he would ‘never amount to much’.”

These are all great examples, but it’s important to note that the lesson here isn’t that other people’s opinions don’t matter. Rather, it’s that failure can happen to the best of us, and what really defines our characters is how we respond to that failure. We can either learn from it or we can use it as an excuse to give up.

Of course, sometimes we also need to know when to quit, which is largely the topic of Seth Godin’s 2007 book, The Dip. The idea is that there are peaks and troughs in any endeavour, and it falls to us to identify whether we’re just in a trough or whether we’re actually experiencing a genuine failure with no chance of reversal. But Maxwell’s book came out seven years earlier, and he uses a different metaphor: he calls it finding an exit off the failure freeway.

Do You Mind Changing Your Mind?

This is a nice little segue into the next section of the book, which is all about the art of changing your mind. “Failure is an inside job,” Maxwell explains. “So is success. If you want to achieve, you have to win the war in your thinking first. You can’t let the failure outside you go inside you. You certainly can’t control the length of your life – but you can control its width and depth. You can’t control the contour of your face – but you can control its expression. You can’t control the weather – but you can control the atmosphere of your mind. Why worry about things you can’t control when you can keep yourself busy controlling the things that depend on you?”

One of the problems that many people come up against is that their past can hold them hostage. “In more than thirty years of working people,” Maxwell explains, “I have yet to meet a successful person who continually dwelled on his past difficulties. The problems of people’s past impact them in one of two ways: They experience either a breakdown or a breakthrough.” He suggests that there are five main signs of a past breakdown: comparison, rationalisation, isolation, regret and bitterness.

Maxwell says that the alternative to breakdown is breakthrough, explaining, “Every major difficulty you face in life is a fork in the road. You choose which track you will head down, toward breakdown or breakthrough. If you’ve been badly hurt, then start by acknowledging the pain and grieving any loss you may have experienced. Then forgive the people involved – including yourself, if needed. Doing that will help you move on.”

Get Over Yourself – Everyone Else Has

Maxwell says that people who want to fail forward need to be able to turn their attention away from themselves and towards others. “Many people who struggle with chronic failure do so because they think of no one but themselves,” Maxwell says. He points to the words of Calvin Coolidge, who said, “No enterprise can exist for itself alone. It ministers to some great need, it performs some great service, not for itself, but for others; or failing therein it ceases to be profitable and ceases to exist.”

The next section of the book is all about embracing failure as a friend, starting with a chapter dedicated to grasping the positive benefits of negative experiences. Adversity creates resilience and maturity, pushes the envelope of accepted performance, provides greater opportunities, prompts innovation, motivates people and allows you to reap unexpected rewards. As with most things in life, what really matters is not the adversity itself but rather the way in which you respond to it.

But how exactly do we fail forward in the first place? Maxwell says that the only way to fail forward is to take risks, highlighting a quote from aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh who said, “What kind of man would live where there is no daring? I don’t believe in taking foolish chances, but nothing can be accomplished if we don’t take any chances at all.”      

Learning from Lindbergh

You don’t have to be like Charles Lindbergh to be successful and to fail forward. You just need to open yourself up to the possibility of risk and then weigh up the pros and cons of any decision in a risk vs. reward equation. “In life,” Maxwell explains, “there are no safe places or risk-free activities. Helen Keller, author, speaker and advocate for disabled persons, asserted, ‘Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

Maxwell’s solution is to make failure your friend. “If you repeatedly use your failures as springboards to success,” he says, “then failure can become your best friend.” He suggests that the important thing is to profit from your losses, which can be helped if you ask the following questions the next time you experience adversity:

  • – What caused the failure: the situation, someone else, or yourself?
  • – Was what happened truly a failure, or did you just fall short?
  • – What successes are contained in the failure?
  • – What can you learn from what happened?
  • – Are you grateful for the experience?
  • – How can you turn it into a success?
  • – What can help you with the issue?
  • – Where do you go from here?

The last section of Maxwell’s book is all about beating the odds to achieve success, but it largely just builds upon the mind-sets that we’ve already talked about and we’re not going to go over it here so that you still have a reason to go out and grab the book. There’s a lot to learn here – so much so that we could never fit it all into a single summary.

The 15 Steps to Failing Forward

All of this is a lot to take in, but the good news is that Maxwell also provides us with a useful little list of steps we can follow to make sure that we’re failing forward as opposed to just failing. On their own, this advice might not make a lot of sense, but it all works in context and with a bit of luck, you’ve learned enough from our review and write up that you’re ready to put each of these fifteen steps into action.

  1.  Realise there’s one major difference between average people and achieving people
  2.  Learn a new definition of failure
  3.  Remove the ‘you’ from failure
  4.  Take action and reduce your fear.
  5. Change your response to failure by accepting responsibility
  6.  Don’t let the failure from outside get inside you
  7.  Say goodbye to yesterday
  8.  Change yourself, and your world changes
  9.  Get over yourself and start giving yourself
  10. 10. Find the benefit in every bad experience
  11.  If at first you do succeed, try something harder
  12.  Learn from a bad experience and make it a good experience
  13.  Work on the weakness that weakens you
  14.  Understand there’s not much difference between failure and success
  15.  Get up, get over it, get going

Now that you know the basics of failing forward, the next step is for you to start applying what you’ve learned today to your day-to-day work. Sure, it’s important to know when to play it safe and avoid unnecessary risks, but there are also times when you need to put your neck on the line. If you fail, no problem – just make sure that you fail forward. Remember that failing forward is more of a mind-set than anything, and as long as you’re open to the idea of learning from your mistakes then the lessons will provide themselves.

There’s plenty for you to learn from Maxwell’s book and so be sure to pick up a copy if you’re interested in learning more. In the meantime, with a bit of luck you’ve been able to pick up the basics thanks to this article and you’re leaving us with a list of different ideas that you’re going to put in place at your business. There’s no need to be afraid of failure anymore. It’s time for you to start failing forward.


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