5 Winners Teach Us How to Learn From Failure

Sometimes life throws you a curveball, hands you a lemon, or knocks you for a loop. But knowing how to approach failure can be the first step to success. The latest science and strategies on how to win in the end.

By Joe Kita from Reader's Digest | May 2009

“I failed to save someone’s life, but I didn’t make the same mistake twice…”
—Mary Wilson, 65, Montecatini, Italy

I was making dinner in my apartment in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1996 when I heard breaking glass and a woman screaming next door. I knew immediately what was happening: The young woman was being beaten by her husband—and this time, I didn’t hesitate to act.

You see, 15 years earlier, when I was living in a house near Boston, I had another young couple as upstairs tenants. They would fight occasionally and get loud, but they’d always settle down when I phoned to complain. But very early one morning, I heard screaming. I called like I normally did, and when no one answered and things quieted down, I went back to bed. The next thing I knew, someone was banging on my door, and when I opened it, I saw the man who lived upstairs. “I’ve killed Sandy,” he said. He was covered in blood and, as I later found out, had used knives and broken bottles to stab her to death and then tried to kill himself. I called the police and went upstairs. What I saw was so horrible, I couldn’t continue to live there. I sold the house at a loss that week.

I was pretty traumatized afterward. I never sought psychiatric help but probably should have. I couldn’t get over the fact that I had an intuition about that guy, but I dismissed it. I knew my guilt wasn’t rational, but it never left me. Deep down, I always felt I could have done something.

And that’s why when I heard the screaming again in ’96, like a cruel déjà vu, I was immediately on the phone with police and then out the door to help. I was angry, livid, maybe even a little out of control. Their door was dead-bolted from inside, but through the broken glass panels, I could see him dragging her into the bathroom. He was covered in blood from crawling through the glass and was screaming, “I’m going to drown you!” I started pounding on the door and yelling, “Leave her alone! I can see what you’re doing!” That must have surprised him, because he stumbled, and then she broke free, and he fled out the back door.

The girl was bruised but not seriously injured. Since I was in the Navy at the time, I took her to the base for safekeeping and then helped her through the entire legal process until he was finally convicted.

In retrospect, the whole story is so strange, I almost can’t believe it. It’s like it was meant to happen. I no longer feel guilty, because things have come full circle. But what I still occasionally ponder is how opportunity exists even in horrible situations—the opportunity to learn, to improve, and ultimately to react differently if you’re ever given a second chance.

“I failed to be careful and lost my eye, but it’s helped me see things more clearly…”
—Alex Gadd, 52, Pikeville, Tennessee

I was loading my truck to go to the flea market when a hook on one of the bungees bent and snapped back into my left eye. The pain was like a hot sword had been shoved through my head. I fell down on my hands and knees, and when I saw what looked like gelatin and blood dripping onto the ground, I knew it was bad.

They took me to Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga, where there’s a special eye center. The doctors there operated on me several times but couldn’t save my eye. When they told me the news, I wanted to die. I was divorced, and I figured no woman would ever want anything to do with me. All that was left of my eye was white, and my face was swollen and bruised.

Even after I got my prosthetic eye, I couldn’t shake the depression. To make matters worse, I lost my job as a transportation officer for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services because of concerns about my driving ability. But one morning, I woke up and the TV was on, and there was this 16-year-old girl. She had been severely burned on her face, hands, and legs and was learning to walk again. She wore a big smile and seemed to look right at me and said, “You can’t ever give up.” At that moment, I thought, This is just an eye. Get over it.

And I did.

It’s been almost 12 years since my accident, and there isn’t anything I can’t do now that I used to do. Women still seem to like me, and no one can even tell I have a prosthetic eye, because the new one is that good. And although I didn’t get my old job back, they reinstated my license, and I haven’t had so much as a fender bender in over a million miles of driving.

I read a story once where this man was feeling bad because he had no shoes, until he met a man who had no feet. No matter how devastating your problem is, remember there’s always someone somewhere who’s worse off. Despite having just one eye, I see things a lot more clearly now.

“I failed to realize my dream, but I’ve since realized other things…”
—Daryl Nelson, 36, Brooklyn, New York

A record deal. It happened to my best friend and me when we were juniors at Virginia State University playing in a hip-hop band called BizzrXtreemz. I heard that Clive Davis, the founder and president of Arista Records, blessed the deal himself. We dropped out of school to move to New York in the summer of ’94. We were 21 years old, and we were on our way.

In order to concentrate on our music, we hired a manager and entrusted him with our $5,000 advance. But one day when we showed up at the studio, we were told we couldn’t record anymore because they hadn’t been getting paid. Our manager was a crook. With no money of our own, we threw together a few songs, but the quality was horrible. The head of Arista’s music department hated them, and we lost the deal.

After six months, it was over.

I remember sitting in a daze under a bridge with winos and homeless people. Nothing had ever hinted at failure. I thought I was destined. Of course, we didn’t immediately give up. We cut other demos and took them around town, but after a while, we had to start working to survive. The music never left us; it just became a smaller part of our lives. I’m a benefits coordinator for a union now, the latest in a long string of customer-service jobs I’ve held in the 15 years since that summer. My partner and I broke up some years back, and I’ve released a few solo songs under the name River Nelson for a small London-based label. But I’m not chasing the same dream anymore. There comes a time when you have to reassess your dreams and cast out what’s lofty or no longer reality. At the same time, though, you keep those things that are valuable, which for me was the resiliency, perseverance, and focus I’d acquired. If you go at it this way, you’ll see that the pot of gold is really chasing that pot of gold.

I still do music, but I do it for music’s sake now. I’ve redirected all the energy I used to put into the business of music into other creative things. And that’s been a new beginning. I still have a piece of my original dream, but now I also have all these other blessings.

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