When author J. K. Rowling addressed the graduating class at Harvard last June, she didn’t focus on success. Instead, she spoke about failure. She related a story about a young woman who gave up her dream of writing novels to study something more practical. Nonetheless, she ended up as an unemployed single mom “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless.” But during this rock-bottom time, she realized she still had a wonderful daughter, an old typewriter, and an idea that would become the foundation for rebuilding her life. Perhaps you’ve heard of Harry Potter? “You might never fail on the scale I did,” Rowling told that privileged audience. “But it is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.
“You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.”
Lots of Americans are tasting failure for the first time now and immediately trying to spit it out. Whether it’s a home foreclosure, unemployment, or the evaporation of hard-earned savings, the have-it-all generation suddenly doesn’t. But in the bitterness that accompanies adversity are lessons worth savoring—and, if you look hard enough, sweet opportunity.
On the pages that follow, you’ll learn how the brain responds to failure and how it can be reprogrammed for success using some simple tricks. You’ll also find advice from a successful entrepreneur who claims that times like these are actually among the best for launching dreams. But most valuable, you’ll meet some ordinary people who were in some tough situations. A few screwed up; others got sucker punched. But even though their stories are quite different, the outcomes are the same. They all bounced back. And you can too.
As Rowling herself would admit, it doesn’t take a wizard to do it.
“I failed to be the wife with a white-picket life, but I’ve since given it to my children…”
—Randi Ketchum, 36, Huron, Ohio
It was one of the happiest times of my life. I was 29 and had just received my bachelor’s degree, graduating with honors despite working two jobs and being a wife and mother. My parents and five-year-old son were in the audience when I walked onto the stage at Ashland University to get my diploma. I was so excited and proud to be starting a teaching career and contributing more to my family’s well-being.
But when I got home that evening, there was a note from my husband written on the back of an envelope. It basically said he’d come to get his clothes and wouldn’t be back. We’d been having trouble, but the finality of that note still came as a shock. He had emptied our bank account. We were horribly in debt. I had quit my previous jobs in anticipation of interviewing for a teaching position. Plus, I was eight months pregnant.
Most young women have an idealized picture of the happy-go-lucky life they’re going to live in a house with a white-picket fence. But no one ever sits you down and says that’s not reality, and sometimes life is just darn ugly. It all caved in for me that night. I was embarrassed, scared, and angry and felt I had failed.
But I had my son, and I was about to bring a new life into the world, so despite my deep sadness, I had to go on. The next morning, I woke up (literally and figuratively), put my feet on the floor, took a deep breath, fixed breakfast, and basically did everything I always did. I used my routine to keep me moving. After being in the military for six years, I guess you can say I fell back on my training, like all good soldiers do in tough situations. One small step after one small step was the way I bounced back.
And in the seven years since, I’ve continued moving forward. I got a job as a kindergarten teacher, earned a master’s degree in education, and watched my babies grow to 12 and seven. I certainly would never have chosen to put them through this, but in retrospect, I’m glad it happened to me when it did. It helped me find my voice and myself a lot sooner. It helped me grow independent, confident, and strong—things I’m hopefully instilling now in my children.
“I failed at everything when I was young, but I just sold my company for $75 million…”
—Bob Williamson, 62, South Florida
In 1970, when I was 24, I hitchhiked to Atlanta and, ironically, ended up on Luckie Street. I was anything but lucky at the time. I was a drug addict and was wanted by police. Everything I owned was in a pillowcase. I had decided I was going to either straighten up or commit suicide. I sold a pint of blood for $7 and got a room for the night at the Luckie Street YMCA. The next day, I landed a job cleaning bricks, then moved into a boardinghouse and slowly started making my way back.
But luck wasn’t on my side just yet. I got into a head-on collision in a borrowed car and was hurt so badly, I was in the hospital for three months. While I was there, I took to reading the Bible. I picked it up out of boredom and really thought I would disapprove of it. But I read the New Testament, then the Old, and then the New again—every word of it. And at that moment, I started to feel a gentle, steady pull of encouragement. Even though I had the morals of a junkyard dog, I felt forgiven and even loved.
Shortly after I left the hospital, I met a wonderful young woman, whom I married six months later. She was like something out of The Brady Bunch, as opposite to me as you could imagine, but we’ve been married now for 38 years and have a large, loving family. I went on to become a pillar of the community and a successful businessman. In fact, I just sold my software company, the ninth business I founded, for $75 million.
I don’t believe in coincidence or luck. I believe in God. And if there’s a lesson I learned from this, it’s that God seems to show his strength and power through weakness. I think he picks the down-and-out on purpose to demonstrate what’s possible. But it isn’t always an aha moment. He doesn’t just bless you and heap on the millions. Rather, God shows you the way and supplies the opportunities. Then it’s up to you to set the goals, devise the strategy, and, most important, provide the man-hours. That’s the way you get to lucky street.