“Most great people have attained their greatest success just one step beyond their greatest failure” – Napoleon Hill

Many of us have read that failure is good because one cannot learn unless one makes mistakes. And many of us have learned to respect failure because such historical figures as Thomas Edison and Abraham Lincoln failed repeatedly before becoming the luminaries they are now widely regarded to have been.

Beyond the many anecdotal stories that support this hypothesis, there are deep psychological forces at play that can explain why people who fail ultimately succeed beyond their wildest dreams.

It is believed that people who fail are people who are not afraid to try new things even when they are outside of their comfort zone or they are believed to be impossible to accomplish. It is obviously easier said than done and most people don’t go around trying to fail. Edison and Lincoln are still considered to be in a class of their own and our culture still has very little tolerance for failure. So rather than pontificate about the virtues of failure, it is more practical to look for reasons why people who fail more also often reach greater heights.

A landmark scientific study[1] about Intelligence published in 2008 demonstrated that contrary to what is commonly believed by the scientific community, it is possible for everyone to increase their Fluid Intelligence quite dramatically. Indirectly, this study helped identify five key attitudes that facilitate the continued development of one’s intelligence throughout life: seeking novelty, thinking creatively, doing things the hard way, challenging oneself and networking.

What is remarkable about these attitudes is that they can also be tied to success. The first two can surely get individuals into trouble whether in business or in politics. And careful professionals regularly succeed by ignoring the first three. Many misguided people define success with a title and a salary and the best way for them to get there is to blend in and avoid risk. And doing things the hard way could delay gratification, so why go there?!

It is this type of thinking that keeps the middle of the road managers from taking on projects that could take them off the fast track and give them of an opportunity to learn new concepts, make new connections and gain meaningful experiences. It is common wisdom that “jacks of all trades master none,” but there is also ample evidence that a strong base of general knowledge and experience makes us wiser.

Looking at things under a new light and seeking new experiences can often be riskier than the known path, but these experiences and the setbacks that inevitably accompany them foster greater maturity in the end.

For example, it took Steve Jobs 30 years, three near-bankruptcies and a lot of experimenting to grow into one of the most successful business leaders of all time, as you will learn in this Motivideo. But if you have read Walter Isaacson’s biography, you have probably already concluded that Jobs clearly demonstrated the five attitudes outlined in this post.

Great people instinctively understand that not seeking novelty, thinking creatively, challenging themselves, doing things the hard way and networking will ultimately prevent them from living up to their full potential and becoming truly great. They may stumble a few times along the way, but then again who doesn’t?!


[1] Improving Fluid Intelligence with Training on Working Memory, by Jaeggi, Buschkuehl, Jonides, and Perrig.