The view beyond failure

From the Director of Post Secondary Planning

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States, 1910

Exactly one hundred and one years from the date President Roosevelt delivered his now famous speech at the Sorbonne, I returned to Australia after attempting to achieve a lifelong ambition — to trek to a place in the Himalaya where I could gain the best views of Mt Everest. I had held that ambition for most of my life and have long since forgotten its origin. Still today, I fail to understand its grip on the back of my mind.

Sometime in 2008 I decided to realise my ambition and, as plans began to emerge, my son showed a keen interest in sharing it. So, what originated as a personal goal became a shared vision and on the 4th of April we set out from Kathmandu for a vantage point called Kala Pattar. For six days we shared the same trail, the same personal journey and the same ambition until, at 4730m, the physical challenge of altitude took its toll. It was a defining moment to watch my son disappear around a bend in the trail toward my lifelong ambition while I turned away from it to descend and I felt failure deeply.

In this goal-oriented world, the identification and reward of success is everyday practice. It is an accepted and proven strategy of good management, good leadership and good child-rearing practice. It is, however, equally important to recognise and reward one’s “time in the arena”, successful or not; critical that we create a place where one is free to, as Roosevelt said, “fail while daring greatly”.

We spend much time marvelling at the successes of world politicians, business leaders, entertainers, sports people and the like, rarely taking time to investigate the effort it may have taken to achieve them. Abraham Lincoln was defeated in no fewer than eight elections before his election to the US Presidency in 1860. Prior to founding Microsoft, Bill Gates and Paul Allen’s first business venture failed. Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman were both voted by their acting classmates as the “least likely to succeed”; and Michael Jordan, the man often lauded as the best basketball player of all time, was actually cut from his high school basketball team.

It is not enough to seek achievement in the successes of this life. To do only that denies us the benefit of the sense of achievement that comes from trying. Every success is preceded by a conscious decision to enter “the arena”. Each of these decisions is accompanied by risk and, with every risk, the possibility of failure. The benefit of the risk is founded in what we take away from the experience, successful or otherwise.

Years ago now, in a conversation with a father of the school, he commented that he loved his children to bring him their failures as well as their successes. I could see then, that, in recognising both, his obvious intent was to reward their foray into the arena. I observe now, that, in his practice, his underlying intent was to create a safe and healthy learning environment where it was more important to try and fail than not to try at all. I have never forgotten his wisdom.

Girls, whether the arena is high school, university, career or simply a personal ambition, make certain that you are in it! Set lofty goals; strive valiantly to achieve them and spend yourselves in a worthy cause along the way. You will know successes and failures in your attempts and your learning will have its foundations in both. When all is said and done, “daring greatly” will guarantee you never share a place “with those cold and timid souls”.

As well as glorious views and strong feelings of challenge and accomplishment, the other good thing about trekking is that it gives you plenty of time to reflect. Here is what I learned on my descent:

  1. success is whatever you make it, wherever you find it;
  2. success can be measured by the journey as well as the outcome;
  3. it is equally rewarding to witness a shared idea of success as it is played out in another person’s life; and
  4. you can find success in “unsuccess” and, I suspect, even “unsuccess” in success.

I was unsuccessful in my attempt to achieve a lifelong ambition to see Mt Everest from a place called Kala Pattar. I did, however, find success in the journey. I realised I had walked amongst the most magnificent mountains on the planet, witnessed my son achieve my lifetime ambition albeit in his life, found a new understanding of success, and had the time of my life in the arena.

Mr J Seaha


50 famously successful people who failed at first (2010). In Online college. Retrieved May 10, 2011 from

Roosevelt, T. (1910). Citizenship in a republic: the man in the arena. In Leadership now. Retrieved on 6 May 2011 from

Leave a Reply

Close Menu