The Truth About Failure

I was thinking about the first plant I ever purchased for my garden. It wasn’t a plant but rather a bag of six calla lily bulbs. I was drawn to the packaging with all its splashy photography and infographics that explained how deep, how wide and how far apart I needed to dig each hole. I remembered asking the horticulturist, “What’s the best fertilizer?” As she handed me her recommendation, she advised that with my sandy soil, I might want to buy a bag of compost and soil conditioner too. I left the nursery feeling totally prepared and excited to begin my new adventures in gardening.

After returning home, I carefully followed the planting instructions. It took all day. And then I waited, and waited, and waited some more for those darn calla lilies to bloom. In fact, I waited three long and exasperating years for the first bulb to show any signs of life above ground. When it finally happened, only one of the six bulbs originally planted broke ground. It was just a one-inch bright green stem. I thought to myself, “I’m absolutely the worst gardener in the history of gardening!” I felt like a total failure.

My garden was my creative refuge and my ego needed desperately for those plants to grow. You see, a few years earlier I got tired of my career going nowhere in outside agencies. So, I abruptly quit my job as a senior art director working on the top floor of a fancy building in a big city. I traded both the cushy job and posh address for a position in-house with a government agency. My new office was located in a converted storefront on main-street in a small rural town.

shutterstock_143878297_lilliesPhoto from Shutterstock

At the end of my second day on the new job, I knew whatever career I’d originally imagined for myself was never coming true. I thought I’d made a huge mistake in taking a gamble on my career and trying something a little different. That decision ultimately made me feel like a miserable failure. I needed to succeed, if not in my career, then most definitely in my garden—the one place where I was to have total creative control. But the creative director, Mother Nature, had other plans and ideas.

So I buckled up and worked my tail off for five long years at that in-house job. The day I resigned, my department had transformed from a liability to a valued department. As I walked to my car, I felt like I was leaving my in-house team in a better position then where they were when I first arrived. Each person on my team was respected. I felt like I’d made a real difference in their professional development, as their (former) manager, I was left with a warm feeling of success. Surprisingly my garden was flourishing too. That calla lily, well, it eventually bloomed, five years later when I was working in-house at another company!

I was reading something recently that stated that the world is littered with examples of flaming, spiraling failures. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve had my share. But today we’re told that it’s absolutely okay to be a failure. I’m not 100% sure that’s true. In fact, I can think of a couple of jobs where failure is not an option—lion training and knife throwing are two jobs that come to mind.


Photo from Shutterstock

What I believe is important to accept is that failure is a part of life. When you experience it, remember not to wallow in it. Don’t allow your personal and professional failures to consume and incinerate you.

Identify each of your mistakes and learn from them. Then move on, wiser and equipped to extinguish anything that will keep you from realizing your future successes. There will come a day when you reach your ultimate goals, and you’ll look back at all the twists and turns of your journey and think to yourself, “Congratulations!”

This edited text was excerpted from a commencement address Ed Roberts gave to some very talented and creative college graduates.



2 thoughts on “The Truth About Failure

  1. Andy Epstein

    Great post, Ed. I actually believe you’ve modeled 2 other great leadership traits in your piece – patience and perseverence – 2 essential mindsets for in-house leads. In your stories, over time, you succeeded in your job and the flowers bloomed – it just took longer than you thought AND you never gave up. Thanks for sharing these insights.